Do not rush to judge standards at universities

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Eyebrows may well be raised in some academic circles at the news that thousands of youngsters every year will be going on to higher education without having followed the traditional A-level route.

Eyebrows may well be raised in some academic circles at the news that thousands of youngsters every year will be going on to higher education without having followed the traditional A-level route. Those that baulk at it, though, should think again before leaping to the conclusion that higher education is being dumbed down. They should recognise that we are educating and, yes, equipping today's youngsters for a vastly different world than was the case when they were at university and the urgent need today is to develop world-class technical skills to enable us to compete in the global economy.

The development of a quality vocational route to higher education, as envisaged by the Government, is one that is likely to lead to much greater specialisation and diversity within the university sector. The youngsters who will be taking advantage of this route are unlikely to be candidates for the leafy spires of Oxford and Cambridge. They will probably opt for places at the new universities, which will be charged with developing and improving upon the vocational degree courses many of them already run.

Some of these universities are already attracting youngsters from non-traditional routes, but the vocational qualifications at present on offer do not inspire confidence. That is why we welcome the Government's acknowledgement that there must be a much tougher quality control regime on these new apprenticeships. The portents, if one looks at the Individual Learning Accounts Scheme, are not good. Here adults were able to apply for retraining grants, with the money going to firms and individuals which, in some cases, had no intention of providing quality training. Several people have now been arrested on suspicion of fraud and the scheme has been suspended.

Lessons appear to have been learned, however: the new diploma envisaged for apprentices has external checks on quality. And more foundation and further education access courses will be set up for those who wish to move on to higher education after their apprenticeships. As a result of this thoughtful planning, we wish the programme success. It is the only realistic way of achieving Tony Blair's declared aim of getting 50 per cent of youngsters involved in higher education by the end of the decade.

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