Response to the government position paper on Higher Level Vocational Qualifications

This response was to a paper in which the government set out its current thinking on higher level NVQs/SVQs, the main principles underlying current arrangements, and its priorities for further development of qualifications at higher levels.


  1. The Biochemical Society, with some 9500 members in academia, publicly funded bodies and industry, is a Learned Society that promotes the advancement of the science of Biochemistry, in active collaboration with other societies representing cellular and molecular life sciences. The Society concerns itself with all aspects of education and training of cellular and molecular life scientists, including curriculum development and teaching technology.
  2. Biochemistry is fundamental to a broad range of other molecular life science disciplines. The Biochemical Society itself does not accredit courses and qualifications at present, but certain sectors employing biochemists, particularly Medical and Health Care, set professional vocational standards. The Society considers that vocational education and training are of vital importance to biochemical industry.

The need for higher level vocational qualifications in the molecular life sciences

  1. In its submission to the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education the Biochemical Society highlighted, as a major problem, the low esteem of vocational qualifications. It has resulted in such awards failing to attract good students, and institutions formerly supplying them to switch to more academic (usually degree) courses. The inflation of expectations caused by this switch has resulted in key sectors such as the pharmaceutical industry experiencing difficulty in training or recruiting staff with appropriate technical skills.
  2. A key requirement for higher level vocational qualifications is thus that they should acquire the same esteem as academic awards. The earlier submission urged that:
    1. industry, interested bodies such as Public Health Authorities, and higher education institutions having a vocational mission, should collaborate more so that courses are orientated to meet the needs of the work place, and prospective students can see a clearer route into employment through a vocational qualification;
    2. these bodies should focus on quality assurance in order to overcome a common criticism that vocational courses lack rigour and adequate monitoring of standards.
    In addition, it is essential for industry and higher education institutions to signal their support for vocational qualifications by making it clear that their holders are welcomed into biochemical employment and into higher level study.

Main principles of vocational qualifications

  1. The Society supports the characteristics of vocational qualifications given in paragraph 2.1 of the paper. In order to promote parity of esteem with academic qualifications it is important to offer individuals the opportunity to progress to comparable levels by the vocational route, so that the development of awards to level 5 is necessary. The Society recognises that the definition and assessment of competencies at the higher levels may present problems, and requires co-operation of all interested parties. The Biochemical Society would wish to be involved in this exercise for the molecular life science disciplines. The function of higher level vocational courses as a means of providing continuing professional development is likely to become increasingly important.

Derivation of competencies at higher NVQ/SVQ levels

  1. In view of the nature of biochemical industry and the rapid advances in the molecular and life sciences it is essential that competencies are rooted in a firm understanding of key biochemical principles and methodology, but the ability to apply knowledge in different settings is crucial. Other competencies discussed in section 3 of the paper, namely problem solving, dealing with the unexpected, use of judgement, acceptance of responsibility, and effective management, are appropriate to biochemical industry and acquire increasing importance with career progression.. The development of occupational standards at different levels needs to be agreed between representatives of industry or public bodies, professional bodies or learned societies, and higher education institutions, as appropriate for particular circumstances.
  2. The former HNC provides a good model for vocational courses at level 3-4 and was well regarded within biochemical industry. In a typical Applied Biology HNC the first two years of day-release were common to all students (strengthening the broad knowledge base), and individual students selected modules in the final year appropriate to the particular job. The encouragement of staff to undertake day release study signalled an interest by employers in their career progression, and the bringing together of students from a variety of biological/biochemical employment led to the sharing of valuable work experiences. Whilst there was no formal assessment of work place competence in the HNC the nature and ability of the graduand was well understood, and such technicians enjoyed considerable mobility within the industry. This format of qualification has the advantage of portability, and the possibility of updating job skills, or acquiring new ones, by taking another specific module appropriate for a different post. It allows a balance to be struck between the specific needs of each employer, and the needs of employers at large for a qualification system which gives the necessary breadth for portability and developing transferable skills (paragraph 4.4).
  3. Most of the competencies listed in 6 are generic in nature. It is likely that confidence in accepting responsibility, and for managing staff or projects, for example, would arise from on-the-job experience, rather than being acquired from taught modules or units. However, the Society can see benefits in adopting common units already in existence, where this is appropriate, to boost skills that are common to a number of higher level occupations (paragraph 4.3).

Relationship with Higher Education

  1. The Society recognises the differences between higher education qualifications and occupational qualifications given in paragraph 6.2, but sees a crucial role for higher education institutions in providing a range of courses to meet the training and education needs of employers or professional bodies, and in providing support for the continuing professional development of workers in biochemical industry. Clearly, there is a divergence of mission between different higher education institutions, but it can be predicted that national standards of occupational competence will increasingly inform the syllabi of many institutions. Much is likely to depend on the recommendations of the National Committee of Inquiry, which are likely to affect the provision of both NVQs and GNVQs. The Inquiry is expected to make recommendations on the provision of vocational training to meet needs at local, regional, and national levels. Co-ordination between providers will be essential to meet this large range of purposes.
  2. Higher education, as a source of expertise in the subject matter of the biosciences, is well placed to provide help in formulating higher level NVQs/SVQs and to strengthen the subject knowledge base of students. Higher education institutions can also bench mark vocational qualifications alongside academic awards and help to ensure that assessment of workplace competencies are uniform between biochemical employers. It is thus essential that employers and higher education institutions collaborate closely to ensure that assessment is transparent and rigorous. It may well be that some institutions will develop a mission as awarding bodies for NVQs/SVQs as suggested in paragraph 6.5.

The Biochemical Society,
59 Portland Place,
London W1B 1QW;
Tel: 020 7580 5530; Fax: 020 7637 3626;
E-mail: genadmin@biochemistry.org