VET Researchers Tried to Engage with Policy Makers

Posted in : - Blog -, Academics and Policy, Vocational Training Policy on by : petersen Comments: 0


 This paper outlines how a group of researchers came together to prepare policy  proposals designed to improve 16 to 19 work-based education and training.

Many researchers have studied individual aspects of the vocational education and training system. But there is no established mechanism for drawing out  policy implications and bringing them to the attention of policy-makers. The author had carried out research on National Vocational Qualifications in the engineering industry. The findings of this narrow study would have little effect on policy. Accordingly, he contacted people carrying out research in similar areas and co-ordinated a letter to the Financial Times protesting about NVQ policy. Realising that protests were unlikely to have much impact on policy, a group of researchers got together to outline proposals designed to improve work-based education and training.


 Relationships between Government Ministers, other politicians, Civil Servants, the media, Academic Research and Research Councils are in a state of flux. This project offers an opportunity to reflect on some of the issues involved.

Academics have tried to influence policy from ancient times: Plato suggested that ‘The Minister of Education should be the greatest of all the great offices of State….the legislator ought not to allow the education of children to become a secondary or accidental matter.’[1] This century, the influence of John Maynard Keynes on economic policy is perhaps the most famous example, and that of Milton Friedman the most infamous.

Academic Individualism

As the Economic and Social Research Council ( ESRC)  pointed out ‘Every year millions of pounds of public funds are invested in social science research. However only a tiny percentage of the findings… is aired outside the academic community.’[2] It suggests that the public has a right to see that  public funds from the ESRC are being spent productively… ‘by promoting your work in the media you can shape future policies’ and so on.

In many cases, individual academics carry out research which has policy implications. They can,and often do, bring their findings to the attention of policy-makers forcibly through the media, as the ESRC suggests. However, the ESRC booklet reflects the strong culture of individualism in the academic world. There is only one section about collaborative work in it ‘academics who hear about your work in the press may want to join forces to investigate new avenues.’ However, the ESRC did  not  address the issue which concerns us here: can  like-minded academics  present the policy implications of their research collectively; is this  likely to have any  influence on policy?

Collective attempts by academics to influence policy are not new, often taking the form of books written by several authors. Research Units with an explicit remit of conducting research designed to influence policy were  established -for example the two ‘SPRUs’, each employing researchers from various disciplinary backgrounds. The Science Policy Research Unit at University of Sussex aimed for its researchers ‘to engage effectively in debates about theory and policy in specific areas such as industrial innovation, the energy sector, economic development, environmental regulation and arms control’; and the Social Policy Research Unit at York  University aimed  ‘to increase knowledge and influence the development of social policy’. But these Units together form a small part of the research community which produces policy-relevant research.

 Vocational Education and Training (VET) Policy

There are large numbers of researchers on vocational education and training (VET).  The national VET system is in a total mess, as a consequence of badlydesigned reforms.

Some academics write in language which is incomprehensible to anyone who is not well versed in their own particular discipline. It is unreasonable to expect busy civil servants to undertake the work of assembling the policy relevant material produced by several researchers and research institutes throughout the country and turn it into the language of policy makers. The only people who can, with difficulty, find the time to do this are us. In a small way, this is what we have done in this project.

Why the Group was formed

 I completed an ESRC-funded research project on NVQs in the engineering industry. I found that the contribution which the NVQ system had made to the development of intermediate skills in engineering and to up-dating training to help workers to cope better with organisational and technological change had been very modest.

Normal procedure would be to submit articles to academic journals, which would be published a year or so later, and in addition perhaps to write a few articles for the training trade press. But my findings by themselves would not be of much interest to the national press as my research was based on a survey of one industry, albeit an important one. The chances of my research affecting policy were slim. However, I had become aware that other people were doing research on NVQs, and reaching broadly similar findings about the serious fundamental defects of the system.

I got angry about the enormous waste of scarce resources the Government was inflicting on education and training, and wrote letters to colleagues, enclosing copies of a short article I had published in the training trade press. They put me in touch with other colleagues, and the network grew. There was extensive correspondence about  the best thing to do. The idea emerged that we would write an open letter to the government about the manifest inefficiencies and inappropriateness of the NVQ system as it has been implemented.

Late in 1995, we realised that Gordon Beaumont’s report on 100 NVQs and SVQs was about to be published. If we were to publish anything before that, the Government would say ‘don’t worry, everything is being dealt with in the Beaumont Report.’ Accordingly, we waited until it was published, read it, assured ourselves that, as expected, it failed almpost entirely to deal with the problems we were concerned about. Then, a few of us gathered hurriedly in the offices of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research in London, and drafted a letter which was duly published under the signatures of 14 of us in the Financial Times a few days later on January 17 1996.

The letter had two immediate consequences:

1. It elicited a critical response from a Minister, published in the Financial Times on January 19.

2. It led to an invitation to a meeting with a senior DfEE official and his colleagues , and to subsequent occasional meetings to discuss policy related to NVQs. This was an initiative which we welcomed.

However, we felt at the time that we had achieved very little in terms of generating policy change, and subsequent events (or the lack of them) reinforced our concern.

I had spoken to Phil Hodkinson several times, but we had not yet met. We agreed to meet in London. We had been critical of NVQs, and contributed to  public debate, but  we thought that we should  to try to make a more positive contribution to policy development. However, one of the most serious problems with NVQs is that they form part of what Phil has called ‘The Government obsession with qualifications’. While agreeing that the NVQ ‘revolution’ has had some benefits, such as bringing qualifications within the reach of workers who had no chance of achieving them before, he points to six fallacies which underpin the NVQ philosophy. For the purposes of this paper, the  key fallacy is that

‘Learning is independent from performance, and the latter is derived from the former in a linear way. The NVQ framework is based on the assumption that learning and performance have a linear relationship, and they can and should be separated…. Unfortunately , reality is less simple. Performance contributes to learning, so the process of training has significance in its own right -not simply as a means to achieve a specified outcome…. NVQs fundamentally misunderstand and over-simplify the relationships between understanding and doing and between theory and practice.’[3]

For such reasons, we consider it is unlikely that the NVQ system can be reformed effectively without placing qualifications in the broader context of the whole training (and education) system. This raises a central problem: sometimes, as in this case,  research leads to the conclusion that the whole way a policy area is defined is wrong.  we believe that  it is wrong to drive government training policy through qualifications policy, as it has been for the past several years.

In the attempt to change the policy agenda, we needed to look at an area of VET policy through a focus other than qualifications. We needed to draw  on research commissioned by the ESRC, by Government and other sponsors. But research commissioned by Government is intended to help with implementation of current Government policy. It is not intended to challenge Government policy, nor to try to change the agenda on which Government policy is based. Our project was designed (ambitiously) to try to do both.

Accordingly, Phil Hodkinson suggested that we should get together a group of interested academics to use research results as the basis for proposals designed to improve 16 to 19 work-based education and training. Phil selected colleagues in the academic community on the basis of their work in relevant areas. Everyone approached was enthusiastic about participating.

 How The Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) came to be involved

 I had met Roy Harrison at a seminar at which he had talked on NVQs on behalf of the CBI, by whom he was employed at the time. Subsequently, I discussed the findings of the research I was doing on NVQs with him. He then invited me to discuss possible speakers for an IPD Conference. But IPD, had already decided who they wanted to speak: I was at a meeting with nothing to discuss!  So I tried to interest them in supporting the project we were planning, and after thinking about it and consulting colleagues, they agreed. The resulting report was published by IPD in August 1997.[4]

Note. Based on “Working to Learn: The Formation of the Group” :paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference  (September 11-14 1997: University of York)


[1]Plato, Laws Bk 6, 765,766. cited in Elizabeth Lawrence (1970) , The Origins and Growth of Modern Education, Penguin Books Ltd, p29

[2]Economic and Social Research Council (1993), Pressing home your findings, Media Guidelines for ESRC Researchers. ESRC.

[3]Hodkinson,P., (1995), An Overview of NVQ Issues, Paper presented at the Conference: Reviewing NVQs: The Way Forward, Further Education Research Association, University of Warwick, 19th May .

[4]Evans, K, Hodkinson, P, Keep, E, Maguire, M, .Raffe, D, Rainbird, H, Senker, P and Unwin, L, (1997) Working to Learn: A Work-based route to learning for young people, Institute of Personnel and Development, London.

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