The Conservatives have attacked NVQs, saying they have “negative value on the labour market”, indicating that the vocational qualifications could be scrapped or scaled back under a Tory government.
In a speech to the education consultancy CfBT Education Trust last week, David Willetts, shadow secretary of state for universities and skills, branded NVQ qualifications as “great big flashing lights which say: ‘I have a problem, watch out employer'”.
He said: “Some of the NVQs that these young people get are of little value some of the NVQs at level 2 for example seem to be associated with negative value on the labour market.”
Willetts went on to say he favoured BTEC qualifications and those offered by City and Guilds.
“I am a great fan of qualifications that have the weight of tradition behind them – the City and Guilds, the BTECs – which successive governments have tried to destroy in the interests of rationalisation,” he said.
Mike Campbell, director of research and policy at the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, told Personnel Today Willetts’ comments were “basically accurate”.
He said: “You do find that vocational qualifications other than NVQs tend to generate higher wage returns to people who take them. Qualifications awarded by, among others, City and Guilds, offer better returns than NVQs.”
The latest government figures reveal that wage returns – salary improvements post-qualification – for those taking NVQ level 2 qualifications were -3%. However, City and Guilds qualifications at level 2 had a wage return of 1.3% while BTEC ‘1st’ courses enjoyed a wage return of 7.8%.
Campbell claimed that, paradoxically, one of the reasons for these low or negative wage returns was because employers did not value the qualifications, despite helping to design them.
“If employers did value them the wage gains would be higher,” he said.
“Where NVQs are not generating value for the people that require them and where employers are voting with their feet, then that’s a signal to everybody saying these need developing, reforming and changing.”
But NVQ providers hit back, saying the qualifications were “the lifeblood” of some industries and did add value to both individuals and employers.
Joy Mercer, senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said a lot of work needed to be done “to help the Conservatives understand vocational education”.
She added: “We do not recognise the picture Willetts paints about NVQs that don’t produce a skilled workforce. We feel the value of vocational qualifications is very easy to see. They have been a way of professionalising very low-paid areas.
“Research shows that people with NVQs might not get the economic value out of qualifications that graduates do, but we believe that this is because a lot of students qualified at NVQ level are in areas where there is traditionally low pay.”
She added that NVQs were broad qualifications that enabled people to train on the job and learn technical and key skills.
Nick Gooderson, head of qualifications at sector skills council Construction Skills, said: “NVQs have become the lifeblood of the construction industry over the past 15 years.
“They are now essentially a licence to work in our sector with our employers controlling their content, structure and assessment arrangements; this has allowed them to become a valued qualification. Construction employers remain opposed to any change to NVQs,” he said.
A Conservative spokesman later said: “It’s important that those people wanting to take NVQs have as much information as possible about how valuable they are so they can make a well-informed choice. That means independent careers advice in schools so that the relative labour market value of each can be pointed out to people when they’re making their mind up about which qualifications they want to pursue.”