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Colleges line up for exam powers

Norwich's qualification awarding body status has 14 others bidding to accredit vocational courses

Colleges are queuing to compete for billions of pounds worth of business as they follow the example of the first further education institution to be allowed to award its own qualifications.

City College Norwich has won permission to devise its own courses and qualifications for the financial services business.

FE Focus can reveal that 14 more colleges are due to apply for similar powers.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), which has to approve the bids for awarding body status, confirmed two bids have already been received.

The bids are being co-ordinated by the Association of Colleges (AoC). If granted, the colleges would be able to work with companies to accredit their existing in-house training and win new business by developing bespoke qualifications for them, subject to the approval of the QCA.

The scheme is being promoted in vocational areas in co-operation with 15 industry sectors.

The QCA has also had a bid from a university, although it declined to say whether the unnamed institution was planning to compete with FE colleges in offering qualifications below degree level to the public.

Maggie Scott, the AoC director of learning and quality, said a bid from Highbury College in Portsmouth for e-skills qualifications and a bid for awarding training aimed at regenerating the area around Gatwick airport, involving North East Surrey College of Technology and Croydon College, were among those put forward.

The new qualifications would be available to other colleges to use. The AoC said this model of co-operation would avoid a proliferation of new awarding bodies and help smaller colleges.

Ms Scott said: "For colleges, this is a big next step. A number might feel they haven't got the infrastructure in place to manage it themselves, but they would be very happy to work with a fellow college that they have confidence in."

She denied that colleges, as their own awarding bodies, would be biased towards their own students.

"That concern has always applied to all professional bodies, all universities and basically all the sector skills councils that award their own qualifications," she said.

"It is an issue that isn't new. The point is that the status of being an awarding organisation is so important that you wouldn't jeopardise that for the sake of being lenient to one student, and the QCA will demand safeguards."

The new qualifications developed by colleges will not compete with those for 14 to 19-year-olds developed by traditional exam boards, but will seek to capture a market of in-house workplace training which the Government wants to see accredited on the national qualifications framework.

Colleges rely on public money for up to 95 per cent of their income. The Confederation of British Industry claims that businesses spent pound;33 billion last year on training. Ms Scott said if just a quarter of that represented cash spent on training, rather than the costs of time away from work, it opened up an enormous potential market for colleges, even if some businesses applied to become awarding bodies themselves, as has happened with McDonald's, the airline Flybe and Network Rail.

She said developing qualifications was unlikely to be profit-making in itself, but the move would help to develop strong relations with businesses that would help colleges attract more training work from industry.

This also marked a significant step towards reaching the skills targets for 2020 set by Lord Leitch in his December 2006 report.

Ms Scott conceded that some of the work was likely to initially merely accredit skills already in the workplace, rather than teaching anything knew. "We want to move quickly beyond that stage to the real development and to make sure that people are learning new skills," she said.

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