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John Brennan: 'There is no reason why vocational qualifications should not be acceptable for Cambridge'

Despite being predicted for straight A A-levels, she was refused a place to read medicine at Magdalen College, Oxford. She went on to win a scholarship to study biochemistry at Harvard, leaving in her wake a continuing debate about fair admissions to higher education.

Today, I can reveal another cause célèbre, although he's unlikely to make headlines in the way Laura Spence did. His name is David Eaves. Last year, he graduated from the University of Cambridge with a distinction in engineering. Achievement aside, his case is notable because it represents a shift in attitude towards vocational qualifications by one of our top universities.

David, from Blackpool, didn't take the traditional A-level route. He left comprehensive school at 16, trained as an apprentice engineer at a local firm and took an HNC, and took maths A-level by distance learning in his spare time.

Cambridge accepted him, although he did not have the entry requirement of three A grades at A-level. Since he graduated, the university has rightly celebrated his success by profiling him in its prospectus. It has said it wants to encourage more applicants via the vocational route.

Cambridge's director of admissions, Dr Geoff Parkes, has allied himself to the cause. At the Labour Party conference, he contributed to an Association of Colleges debate, supporting the motion: "Should vocational qualifications take you to an élite university?"

He says that for certain subjects with a vocational element, there is no reason why a suitable vocational qualification should not be acceptable, allied if necessary with suitable academic qualifications.

University admissions processes should seek to minimise barriers irrelevant to satisfying admissions requirements - including an applicant's type of qualifications - according to recommendations on fair admissions by Professor Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University. Despite growth in the number of students entering higher education with vocational qualifications, they feel disadvantaged, for several reasons, including a lack of confidence in the credibility of their qualification, partly due to difficulty in relating it to university entrance requirements. Professor Schwartz's steering group also found that some higher education institutions in effect exclude learners with vocational and access qualifications.

Universities must move with the times, but it is not as simple as converting a few admissions tutors in the hallowed halls. We still face entrenched attitudes - the assumption that if you are studying for vocational qualifications, somehow you are less able. There are also huge issues about information, advice and guidance for young people, ensuring that the routes they are offered are not based on the presumption that academic equals able, vocational equals less able.

In his speech to the Labour Party faithful in Brighton, Tony Blair warned us not to resist the force of globalisation, but to prepare for it. The only secure economic future for Britain lies, he said, in "knowledge, skills, intelligence, the talents Britain has in abundance if only we set them free".

If that is to happen, then surely the onus is on the Government to keep its word on qualifications reform, to offer "high-quality, high-status vocational routes of learning that offer young people real choice and opportunity".

David Eaves had to put his qualifications together through his own endeavours in order to get to Cambridge. But he is living proof that you can mix and match qualifications to get into a leading university - from school-leaver at 16, to work-based learning, and finally to world-class graduate with distinction.

That's not a bad advertisement for any university.

The writer is the chief executive of the Association of Colleges