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

The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
Life and Style

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...


£80 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: KS1 & 2 Supply teachers ur...

Year 4 Teachers needed for day to day and long term

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

PPA Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album