BBC NEWS: Universities lukewarm on Diplomas

Friday, July 27th, 2007

BBC NEWS | Education | Universities lukewarm on Diplomas:

“Fewer than four in 10 university admissions officers see the vocational Diploma as a “good alternative” to A-levels, a survey suggests.
The government wants Diplomas, set to be launched next year, to be a qualification that will allow students to find places at university.

Of those polled, 38% saw Diplomas as a suitable alternative, while 88% backed the International Baccalaureate.

ACS International Schools polled about one-third of admissions officers.”

What’s interesting about this is that I doubt any of the people polled actually read the specs for these diplomas. I think there are many problems with the idea of young people deciding at the age of 14 that they’re going to specialise for the next five years, and the initial choice of diplomas (construction, engineering, health, IT and media) is worrying: it’s not the issue of looking down on subjects such as, say, construction, but the problem is that if a child is at a school that only offers that diploma, then that’s all they can do (or traditional qualifications).

Last year I worked with Skillset on part of the development of the media diploma. My job was to identify what it would take for admissions tutors to accept diploma students onto media degrees. Their assumption was that there was a checklist of skills and knowledge – students should be able to use Final Cut Pro, or Photoshop, or have X number of life drawings in their portfolio, Y number of scripts in a folder and so on.
In fact, as I expected, we found that most admissions tutors appeared to base their decision on ‘cultural capital’ – what films had the applicant seen, who were their favourite directors/designers/artists/authors and so on. Applicants, we said, who were unfortunate enough to live in a town where there was no decent arts scene were less likely to get in to a media degree than those who did – even if those who lived in those areas never took advantage of them. It was more about language, vocabulary and attitude than actual knowledge.

(We observed some dreadful practice, and interviewed some clearly traumatised students. One well-known art college invited applicants from around the UK (many of whom travelled hundreds of miles and even booked into hotels), got them in a hall, told them to leave their portfolios and come back in a couple of hours. When they got back they read out a list of who should go straight home and who should stay.
Another interview procedure at another ‘respected’ university consisted of the student sitting several meters in front of three academics and listening to them spout on about how wonderful the course was and how lucky they were to be interviewed. That student was offered a place and turned it down…)

We recommended that the best thing they could do was make sure any school offering the diploma made a big effort to create links with local HE and FE institutions, as the other big factor in admissions choices was not what the student knew, but where they’d been to school or done their art foundation course. Many decisions on whether to interview a student or not were based on two factors: whether the admissions tutor recognised the school or college they were currently at (which is why certain colleges have good progression stats – nothing to do with their teaching quality necessarily, but more to do with a forty-year-old ‘reputation’); and whether the student had put their course at the top of the list of places they wanted to study (in part, this is an administrative thing, but in many cases is purely about ego).
So PR was more important than anything else in ensuring universities regarded students with diplomas as worth interviewing, and the ability to bluff your way through the interview was the next most important quality. Actual knowledge and skills were way down the list.

This isn’t peculiar to diplomas, incidentally. This is the situation we observed currently.
I think everyone on that panel (and it included people who were high up at the BBC, the British Film Council, Endemol, and many many more, as well as plenty of educators) was a bit stunned by this. Of course I’m being a bit more cynical than I was in the final report which actually put forward some constructive proposals. It is true that schools and colleges need to work on their reputation and the best way to do this is through making contact with local universities. If every diploma provider did that, the reputation of the qualification would go up.

But there is something else that’s important here. When I went to the first meeting on this I have to admit I was sceptical of the whole idea of the diploma and, as I said earlier, I still am – but only with the idea of specialising so early, and the lottery of provision (and more importantly with the idea that students doing this diploma were almost being promised careers in the creative industries at the end of it). When I saw the ideas for the curriculum I was pleasantly surprised: it was extremely liberal, and not over specialised at all. In fact, not at all ‘vocational’. It put many college and university courses to shame.

I can’t speak for the other diplomas in construction and IT, among others. They may be worryingly narrow (IT is a dangerous subject to teach at any time – in 1987 I took an O level in ‘Computer Studies’ which required me to demonstrate knowledge of punched cards… the only time I’ve seen one of those is in documentaries about the old days and, oddly, the occasional science fiction film. And yet we’d been taught about them as though they were still being used…)

But rather than sound the death knell for diplomas because of this story on the BBC, I’d sooner sound the death knell for anyone concerned with admissions who makes decisions like this without looking at the actual curriculum they’re dismissing, and decides whether to interview based on outdated prejudices, and then bases their final decision on whether the student likes the same film directors as they do.
This story tells me the problem isn’t the diplomas, but ignorant admissions staff. At least we’ve got five years before the first ‘graduates’ of these diplomas start to apply to university. I suspect, though, that if they find universities haven’t changed their attitude they’ll just do exactly what most of the industry appear to be hoping, and go and work for them without doing degrees. (In some ways, this would be a good thing if it stops degrees being seen as four-year training courses, but it would also impact on student numbers and, therefore, income).

These diplomas are happening and we have to engage with them, whether we like them or not. I’m surprised (or am I?) at how few academics even know they’re on the cards. Does no one read the educational press?

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