Open Eye: Validating external diplomas

More than 300 independent colleges rely on OU validation for their degrees, says Jane Matthews

The list reads like a Who's Who of research, training and professional institutes: British Antarctic Survey, College of Law, Institute of Molecular Medicine, Chartered Association of Certified Accountants, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, the National Film and Television School...

What connects them, and some 300 more institutions, is one of the OU's less-well-known operations, Open University Validation Services (OUVS).

Established in 1992 as a successor to the Council for National Academic Awards, OUVS's role is to provide a validation service for a wide range of awards for those organisations which it accredits. In practice that makes Validation Services a quality watchdog, the guarantor for students, institutions and the wider public that awards and awarding bodies have met the same rigorous academic and professional standards that the OU applies to its own qualifications.

In 1998 its work led to more than 3,000 people, in addiition to those who studied for their awards directly with the OU, receiving certificates bearing the distinctive blue and gold shield. And the numbers continue to grow.

For OUVS' partner organisations, the shield represents not only an academic kitemark, but access to the University's huge expertise in delivering education programmes to people from a wide range of backgrounds, many of them mature students returning to study for professional development.

"Some are tiny and specialist, like Leo Baeck College which trains seven rabbis a year. Association with us gives them access to the wider academic community," explains OUVS Director Derek Pollard.

"On the other side we take relatively mature organisations which are well down the road in terms of delivery and help them towards independence in their own degree-awarding powers. It's quite normal for the process to take two years, though it can be as short as six months if you have an institution whose systems are already very mature.

"We do operate a relatively hands-off system so they have to get to the stage where they are running sound institutional quality assurance procedures," he adds.

While there are some unexpected names among the list of partner organisations - Canada's Equine Research Centre, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew - OUVS has rapidly built a reputation for expertise in a number of fields. Among them is the broadcast and media industry, where its approved assessment centres for NVQs include the BBC, Northern Ireland Film Commission, Scottish Screen Training, and Yorkshire and Tyne Tees Television.

In the field of medicine, OUVS approves a large number of well-known organisations to sponsor research students, including Addenbrookes' NHS Trust, the Diabetes Research Laboratories, Institute of Molecular Medicine and Medical Research Council laboratories both in the UK and in Jamaica and The Gambia.

The breadth of disciplines covered by Validation Services reflects the OU's ability to call on experts across the globe to form a specialist review team, making the visits, and meeting with management, teachers and students, in order to decide whether an institution can be accredited. Once that benchmark has been established, the institution can apply to have its programmes approved for OU- validated awards, again by a panel of subject specialists.

In turn, OUVS's standards are monitored by a Validation Board, chaired by OU Vice-Chancellor Sir John Daniel with membership from higher education, industry, commerce, the professions, public services and representatives of accredited organisations.

Derek Pollard says: "Quality is at the centre of what we do, and it's the reason people choose the OU. They see it as being a body of standing and quality with a mission complementary to their own.

"We are not there to acquire their organisation. We recognise their autonomy and that is reflected in the design of the degree and diploma validated certificates, which encourages students to identify with the institution where they have taken their course."

He stresses that any award made through OUVS is as valid as any other OU award: "The authority for all OU degrees is the Royal Charter which draws no distinction between directly awarded and validated degrees - so an OU degree is an OU degree is an OU degree. The validation process is expressly charged to ensure the standards of all OU awards are the same, wherever they are obtained."

Film and Television

If film credits showed not only the name of the best boy and key grip but also their qualifications, cinema audiences would be seeing a fair bit more of the OU.

For through its partnership with Skillset, the standard-setting body for broadcast, film, video and multi-media industries, the OU is the awarding authority for around 40 NVQs covering everything from camera, sound, lighting, props, costume and set construction to research and production.

Skillset and OUVS have a strong relationship as joint awarding-body partners. This brings together Skillset's wide industry experience and vision for the implementation of NVQs with the OU's resources, administrative base and expertise in rigorous quality assurance systems.

The partnership has grown out of the need to respond to a rapidly changing environment. "The industry grew up with something akin to an apprenticeship scheme. You joined as a trainee cameraman and learned from an experienced cameraman, perhaps attending a BBC-supported training scheme. Now 60 percent of the workforce is freelance and these opportunities do not exist," says Skillset's Chief Executive Dinah Caine. "Our role is to research and anticipate the needs of the industry and help plug the gaps before they arrive."

As well as its NVQ programme, delivered through a wide range of household names such as the BBC and National Film and Television School, Skillset organises short courses and masterclasses, lobbies for funds to plug the industry's skills gaps, and is currently supporting the development of 'RVQs', which will involve substantial real-world work experience alongside training theory.

Crime Investigation

There can be few professions where there is as little space for error as investigating scenes of crime. As several high profile cases have shown, a single slip-up may be mercilessly exposed in court.

Yet scenes-of-crime investigators are often working against the clock, knowing they have only one chance to minutely locate and examine evidence which may prove crucial.

That is why the National Training Centre for Scientific Support to Crime Investigations, is keen to see the introduction of occupational standards.

The partnership with OUVS has resulted in awards for the first five scenes- of-crime investigators to achieve professional recognition.

In the longer term, the effects of this pilot scheme may be to alter the perception of the white-overalled examiners, so beloved of TV detective drama.

Centre Director Peter Ablett explained: "People see high profile cases involving DNA but, compared to chemistry or physics, whose professional societies have been around for centuries, forensic science has only really got going in the last 15 years.

"Each year around 1,500 crime scene examiners operate in the UK examining one million crimes and they get only one chance - so getting it right means a lot. In terms of getting public confidence, it's very important to have an organisation with the reputation of the OU in support."

Engineering

Technology

From Cyprus to Kosovo, the Open University's special relationship with the armed forces has enabled servicemen and women to continue studying wherever they are posted.

So when engineering specialists Halton College were looking for a partner for a unique new qualification combining engineering with management training, the OU was an obvious choice.

More than 170 senior engineers from the RAF and the Royal Navy have now signed up for the Halton Engineering Technology Management NVQ level 4, validated by OUVS. The College hopes shortly to arrange an awards ceremony on HMS Invincible to mark the first Naval successes on the course, who will be joining four RAF students who have already made the grade.

The partnership has now delivered NVQs to more than 70 bases worldwide, and has developed a reputation for flexibility, which includes piloting a programme via the internet next year.

Explained David Oakes, Head of Department for Engineering and Armed Services at Halton: "At one stage you had an engineering qualification or a management qualification. This programme is aimed at those who wanted them together rather than two stand-alone qualifications; for instance, those who have been engineers and worked their way up into a management role for which they want recognition."

Halton's partnership with the armed services means it has now delivered NVQs to around 74 bases through the UK and worldwide, and has developed a reputation for flexibility, which includes piloting a programme via the internet next year. The support of the OU has been crucial in recruiting to the Engineering Technology Management NVQ, Mr Oakes added.

"We wanted a programme that was unique and our main selling point was the OU's logo. People in the services recognise the OU for its distance learning programmes and value the fact that this qualification gives 60 points towards the OU degree as well as a route towards professional recognition", he said.

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