While GlobalHigherEd‘s focus is on higher education, there are major developments afoot in the UK’s post-16 sector that are worth drawing attention to because of the knock-on implications for the UK’s higher education system.
Today a BBC report stated that the Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA) in the UK had just announced that the fast food giant – McDonalds, along with Airline Flybe and Network Rail – would become one of the first set of private firms in the UK to offer their own nationally-recognized qualifications – up to A-Level standard. The BBC reported that McDonalds regarded this as “an important and exciting new step for the company” whilst the Minister in charge of this initiative – John Denham – stated that:
…this is an important step toward ending the old divisions between company training schemes and national qualifications…
For those of you who don’t know the UK system well, A-levels subjects are those studied for university entrance. To date, schools and colleges have been the only providers of A-level courses, and these are regulated through systems of professional training, inspection and assessment.
There is little detail yet available on how these new education providers – McDonald’s, Network Rail and Airline Flybe – will be regulated or how the training itself will be funded (government?). What we do know, however, is that the course content will be tailored to the training needs of the firm, and that the focus will be on workplace skills rather than broader competencies that might develop the whole person.
These new qualifications will face some hostility from the university sector. The BBC report notes (following interviews with 10 university admissions tutors from leading universities) that some universities are already stating they would not accept students who have taken these diplomas.
Nor are the teaching unions happy about this, according to the Financial Times – with Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT arguing:
It is a huge mistake to allow McDonald’s, with its poor track record of employment practice and anti-trade union attitude, to pioneer private sector provision of training.”
There are also industry-based training issues facing this new qualifications venture, as this Financial Times report pointed out:
One independent industry analyst acknowledged national accreditation would increase recognition of McDonald’s qualifications among other employers in the “hospitality industry”. But he said a McDonald’s qualification would not be useful throughout the sector. The skills required in “a high-class restaurant”, including “the etiquette and serving techniques, are quite different.
Today’s announcement by QCA – which essentially amounts to opening up ‘the education system’ to new players in the field – should be seen as part of wider deregulatory trends in the UK education scene. In 2007 GlobalHigherEd reported on a Privy Council decision to give BPP Holdings plc (BPP), Europe’s leading provider of professional education, degree awarding powers. As we noted at the time, not only did this give a for-profit private sector company permission to enter a very substantial and profitable market, but it had the right to award a qualification that has been the preserve of so called proper ‘universities’ . It is also worth noting that this initiative is in alignment with changes to the regulatory system in other countries including Australia. As the Financial Times noted today:
A skills expert in Whitehall said that by giving awarding power to large employers, England was moving into line with other rich countries such as Australia – where Coles, the huge supermarket chain, has a large nationally accredited programme.
The QCA’s policy decision – to let firms like McDonalds award an A-level qualification – will surely present employers and universities with some interesting challenges about how these are to be treated. Like the Privy Council’s decision, it may well be looked back upon as a watershed moment in the governance of the ‘education system’ in the UK.