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

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: At SThree, we like to be differe...

Guru Careers: Graduate Account Executive / Digital Account Executive

£20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate Digital Account Exec ...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £22500 per annum + OTE £30K: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: At SThree, we like to be differe...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before