Amp up our higher powers, say colleges

FE institutions top student polls but only a few can award degrees

Pressure is growing on the government to allow more further education colleges in England to design and accredit their own higher education programmes. The calls come after FE colleges dominated a student satisfaction survey last week, with 12 named among the top 20 HE providers in a poll by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce).

Tyne Metropolitan College topped the list with a 100 per cent satisfaction rating, closely followed by Lincolnshire's Boston College and City College Plymouth, both of which were rated at 97 per cent.

Now the Association of Colleges (AoC) and the 157 Group of colleges are urging the government to change the rules to make it easier for members to award their own degrees.

About 130,000 HE students are currently enrolled in FE colleges, representing close to 10 per cent of the HE undergraduate market. Almost 300 colleges offer HE courses designed and accredited by universities but only three have the power to award their own foundation degrees: New College Durham, Newcastle College and Grimsby Institute.

Andy Gannon, director of policy at the 157 Group, said that more colleges would like to become accredited but the procedure was "difficult and time-consuming".

"We believe that if the process for giving colleges their own awarding powers were made easier then more colleges would go through that, and then that begins to address some of the issues about parity of esteem," he said.

Martin Doel, chief executive of the AoC, said colleges were being "held back" from offering technical and vocational HE courses. "We have a large number of intermediately skilled people and a large number with degrees, but there's a gap in the middle," he said. "Colleges are extraordinarily well placed to fill that gap but they are being held back from doing so. They need the freedom to develop their own HE courses."

The proposal also has the backing of the University and College Union (UCU). Sally Hunt, the union's general secretary, said: "FE colleges are often well placed to deliver HE in flexible and innovative ways to suit different student needs, working alongside schools and universities to widen participation."

Newcastle College gained the power to award foundation degrees in 2011 after almost two years of scrutiny in a process that principal Carole Kitching described as being "like an extended Ofsted visit". However, she told TES that the process should be rigorous to ensure that FE colleges were not seen as "inferior" to universities.

The college now offers 80 foundation degrees, 65 of which it developed and accredited, and is in the process of applying for taught degree powers.

In a 2012 review of business-university collaboration, Sir Tim Wilson recommended that consortia of FE colleges should be allowed to obtain the power to award foundation degrees.

In a speech earlier this year, business secretary Vince Cable said that FE colleges needed to be "trusted more" and given the power to decide what to teach and how.

"We want excellent existing colleges to set their own qualifications, and to be able to validate the programmes of their peers," he said. "For example, Sir Tim Wilson recommended that when the opportunity to legislate arises, we should allow colleges with foundation degree awarding powers to accredit other foundation degree programmes. I agree with him."

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that, thanks to its reforms, the number of FE colleges delivering HE directly had increased from 122 in 2011-12 to 212 in 2014-15.

A spokesman said: "We understand the important role that FE colleges can play in providing HE courses and are working closely with the sector to develop and refine the system.

"However, while we are keen to expand the network of FE colleges offering their own HE courses, we must ensure that the process is thorough and robust.

"This is only right, as degree-awarding powers are not handed out lightly and the system needs to ensure that successful applicants have been properly scrutinised."

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