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Call for degree powers as colleges left high and dry

Decision to cut validation shows that FE providers are ‘at the mercy of universities’

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Calls are growing for FE providers to be given greater powers to award their own degrees, after a university announced that it is severing its ties with 10 colleges.

The decision by Teesside University to stop validating the degrees offered by all of its partner colleges outside the Tees Valley from 2017 will leave some of the country’s biggest FE providers – including Newcastle College, Bradford College and Leeds City College (see graphic, below) – forced to seek new accreditation for their programmes.

While 244 FE colleges in England offer higher education qualifications, only five of them have their own foundation degree-awarding powers. To date, none has been granted the power to award taught degrees. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) told TES that six more colleges were in the process of applying for foundation or taught-degree awarding powers.

The rest are required to have their degrees validated by a university partner. One expert said that the status quo left colleges “at the mercy” of universities, with whom they often ended up competing for students.

The institutions affected by Teesside’s move will now have to go through the lengthy and costly process of seeking a new validator if they are to continue offering degrees.

Nick Davy, higher education policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said that colleges were vulnerable to changes in university strategy, often triggered by the appointment of a new vice-chancellor.

“College HE provision is too important in widening participation and for local economic prosperity for it to be dependent to the extent it is upon the decisions of university partners,” he said. “Colleges with a record of providing high-quality higher education should have the freedom to award their own qualifications without the need for endorsement.”

Last year, the AoC called for the creation of a technical education accreditation council to accredit degrees for colleges.

A ‘subservient’ position

Jonathan Simons, head of education at the Policy Exchange thinktank, said that the situation with Teesside was a good example of why colleges should not be forced to rely on higher education institutions.

“Being dependent on a university for validation puts colleges in a subservient position and at the mercy of universities making decisions about withdrawing partnerships, not least when universities and colleges are competing for the same students,” he said. “This is exactly why either colleges should be able to have awarding powers themselves, or there should be some sort of degreeawarding council.”

New College Durham now faces the prospect of having to find a new university partner for the second time in five years. The college turned to Teesside University after it was one of 24 colleges that saw their partnership with Leeds Beckett University (formerly known as Leeds Metropolitan) terminated between 2012 and 2014.

Principal John Widdowson, who chairs the Mixed Economy Group of 41 colleges offering substantial HE programmes, said: “We are disappointed this has happened, and that it has happened in this way.”

Entering into a partnership with a new university will be costly for both parties, Mr Widdowson said. “We have to resubmit all courses in the format that the new university wants and go through the quality assurance processes that the university wants. And the committee process at the university also takes time,” he added. Teesside’s decision “strengthened the argument that colleges need more autonomy”, he claimed.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that while universities were free to decide which degrees to accredit, they had “a responsibility to manage – and, if they choose, to end – arrangements with colleges in a responsible way”.

In the HE green paper published in November, the government proposed making degree validation more straightforward “to remove barriers” for alternative HE providers.

Teesside University said that the decision was purely strategic and did not reflect on the quality of college provision.

“The university is ensuring that each partner is fully supported during the notice and teach-out periods, and has offered assistance to colleges looking to secure an alternative accrediting partner,” a spokesman said.


Out in the cold

Colleges that will no longer have degrees validated by Teesside University:

  1. Askham Bryan College
  2. Bradford College
  3. Dearne Valley College
  4. Grimsby Institute of FE and Yorkshire Coast College
  5. Kirklees College
  6. Leeds City College
  7. New College Durham
  8. Newcastle College
  9. University Campus Oldham
  10. Wakefield College

‘Students will suffer’

While Newcastle College accredits more than 1,000 of its own foundation degrees each year, it relies on Teesside University to accredit taught-degree courses – including one-year top-ups for the college’s foundation degrees.

Newcastle College’s principal, Tony Lewin, says: “NCG [the national FE group of which the college is part] has had a long and successful relationship with Teesside University. We are disappointed to receive this information from a university that has previously enjoyed such a strong reputation for partnership work in the region.

“Colleges have made great strides in providing high-quality higher education and making it more accessible to all. Without this support, some students will no longer be able to progress into HE at their local college.”

This is an article from the 4 March edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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