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College's bid for full degree-awarding powers rejected

FE news | Published in TES magazine on 16 November, 2012 | By: Joseph Lee

Privy Council puts brakes on historic step for HE provision

The first bid by a college for full degree-awarding powers has been rejected, forcing the largest provider of degree-level courses in FE to sign a new partnership with a university to avoid scrapping its HE provision.

After a four-year approval process involving the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), Bradford College was expecting to take the historic step for FE colleges this year. Instead, the Privy Council declined its application on the QAA’s recommendation.

So far, only two colleges have won the right to award their own foundation degrees and none has been approved to award bachelor’s degrees or postgraduate qualifications. But Bradford’s own experience shows how risky that position can be: its current awarding institution, Leeds Metropolitan University, has cancelled all its partnerships with colleges except for foundation degrees.

Without the expected approval from the Privy Council, the college was forced last week to sign a new agreement with Teesside University.

Bradford’s principal Michele Sutton said the QAA had recommended that the college should do more work on its pedagogic effectiveness and scholarly activity, one of the four criteria on which institutions are judged. She added that a report from QAA inspectors who visited the college over a period of 15 months had in her view been favourable on all counts.

The college intends to reapply at the next available opportunity in June 2013. “We are very, very proud of our HE offer. It’s excellent and extensive and we believe we will get taught degree-awarding powers in the near future,” Ms Sutton said.

The focus on scholarly activity suggests that other colleges might struggle in a system designed for universities with research funding. Ms Sutton said there were no benchmarks against which scholarly activity in colleges could be compared to that in universities. “We do quite a lot of research and the majority of staff are involved in what we consider scholarly activity: keeping on top of their subject disciplines,” she said.

As the first applicant from an FE college, Ms Sutton said she had expected a tough process. But she argued that she still had faith in ministers’ claims that they wanted a wider variety of HE providers and said Bradford was well equipped to provide that.

“What the ministers want is diversification of the sector. There are private providers applying. This will test the process,” she said. “If you look at the new rules for the ‘university’ title, there are places with only 1,000 students that can apply. Bradford College is four times as big as that. My view is that we will continue on our journey and we will get taught degree-awarding powers when the time comes.”

Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group of large FE colleges, said that although she believed ministers still wanted to support HE in FE, promises to revise the application process for degree-awarding powers had not yet been fulfilled. “We’ve been told that it will be made much more straightforward and easy to apply,” she said. “Most colleges would say that has not been their experience. It’s not about reducing their standards in any way, but making it more sensible for colleges going through it.”

Since the higher education White Paper in June last year offered colleges encouragement by arguing for “greater diversity of provision”, they have suffered a backlash from those looking to protect traditional HE.

The success of colleges in bidding for more than half of 20,000 lower-cost HE places under the “core and margin” system unnerved universities. David Willetts, the universities and science minister, was also concerned that a rapidly expanding college sector would recreate the former “binary system” of universities and polytechnics. As a result, the next round of allocations for lower-cost places was just 5,000.

A report in the summer, Understanding Higher Education in Further Education Colleges, provided ammunition for both sides: those wanting to expand HE in FE and those wanting to keep it in check.

It found that colleges were better at widening participation, were more cost-effective and that they offered slightly more teaching time.

But it questioned whether students in colleges had made an informed choice. “Most had no, or very limited, experience of universities, and they were largely unaware or indifferent to what they could offer,” it said.

One in 10 students surveyed did not realise that they were not studying at a university.

Full degree-awarding powers for colleges could resolve that problem by eliminating the confusion of receiving a university qualification from within a college. But for now, they will have to wait.


1 in 12 or approximately 170,000 HE students are based in a college

257 colleges provide undergraduate- and postgraduate-level courses

70% of colleges providing HE rely on a university for funding

20% of HE students in colleges come from low-participation areas, compared with 11 per cent in universities.


Photo credit: Alamy


Original headline: College’s bid for full degree-awarding powers is rejected

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Comment (5)

  • Well I suppose it's one way of limiting opportunity to study locally and stifle opportunities for the less well off. Fair access hahaha.

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    16 November, 2012


  • Good.. This is the correct decision.

    Bradford College does not have the human capital to deliver undergraduate education. It is an FE college and should always remain so.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    18 November, 2012


  • " Ms Sutton said there were no benchmarks against which scholarly activity in colleges could be compared to that in universities. “We do quite a lot of research and the majority of staff are involved in what we consider scholarly activity: keeping on top of their subject disciplines,” she said. "

    This lack of understanding in this statement clearly demonstrates that the Privy Council have made the right decision. If FE colleges awarded degrees it would be a disaster for students, lecturers and the reputation of British education across the world.

    FE colleges are barely capable of running HE in the form of HNC/HND and foundation degrees. Lecturing staff are jumping between teaching FE and HE classes and running themselves into the ground as they are still expected to deliver 820+ hours. Most senior managers in FE are not capable of running HE and some have not even been to university and progressesd via a vocational background.

    Unfortunately much of FE management lack the brains or common sense to realise they are already punching above their weight and that they do not have the structure in place to run degree courses, let alone award them.

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    18 November, 2012


  • Good. It was wrong to allow the word "degree" to be used for these qualifications - it is inconceivable that HE institutions elsewhere in Europe (eg, France/licence) would permit such a watering-down of their 1st degree titles.
    However, the reputational threat is already manifest - "If FE colleges awarded degrees it would be a disaster for students, lecturers and the reputation of British education across the world". My wife (qualified elsewhere in EU and most highly qualified person in the school she now teaches in here) couldn't believe that Teaching Assistants didn't have to have any qualifications, despite the fact that they "supervise" the children for at least half the time, while teachers "assess progress" and do other Ofsted-satisfying tasks. She was further astonished when she was told by a TA that had been on a course one day a week that, at the weekend, she was going to celebrate getting her degree. "How is that possible," she asked me, "when she lacks the kind of knowledge and intellectual skills that come with a degree in any subject?" It turns out that she has a foundation degree from a local college, and who is to say she is wrong to call herself a graduate? My wife has been scandalising her old colleagues, in senior positions back home, with this and her accumulated evidence of how schooling here is not about the depth and breadth of education it provides. How grateful I am that I was able to take early retirement when I perceived the first scent of the rot that would set in.

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    19 November, 2012


  • At Bradford Law School the tutors are required to teach at university level under further education conditions of service, which require them to churn out far more class room hours than would be required of a university lecturer.

    In between lectures the tutors are harassed with bureaucratic tangles relating to registers and such like.

    It is no wonder that Bradford Law School is deficient in 'scholarly activity'. The 60 hour week that must be worked to survive leaves little time for contribution to law journals.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    19 November, 2012


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