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Colleges reaping rewards of their approach to HE

Congratulations to Newcastle College for its landmark achievement in becoming the first FE institution to get more money for teaching higher education than a university.

While Chichester University is happy being a small, friendly university - a logical, and no doubt successful, position to take in an market heaving with educational titans - it is nonetheless a significant achievement by Newcastle. And Newcastle is not alone. Many other colleges will see significant rises in their HE teaching grants next year.

Jackie Fisher is modest about her college's achievement, describing it as "business as usual". And, for the principal and her staff, the institution's business plan probably has long made the achievement inevitable.

But the wider message is powerful: colleges have smashed the university monopoly on higher education, not only in terms of the scale of provision but the paradigm.

John Widdowson, chairman of the mixed economy group of colleges, is right when he says it is not just a question of the amount of higher education being delivered by colleges, but the nature of what is offered.

There is an obvious difference between the honours-level higher education offered by universities and the foundation degrees that colleges tend to focus on. Nonetheless, it can be argued that FE colleges have taken higher education and made it their own. It is not a higher education that derives its legitimacy from research status and academic tradition. It is a higher education legitimised by need: economic, social and personal.

Colleges are reaping the rewards of an approach that writes higher education into a coherent educational narrative, allowing progression through basic, intermediate and high-level skills and between vocational and academic education.

Growing numbers of students are turning to FE colleges simply because there are far fewer barriers - not least financial - to their ambitions and, if there are hurdles, colleges offer a degree of educational and pastoral support hard to get in schools or universities.

Employers, too, find colleges generally more approachable than universities, many of which, in pursuit of research ratings and steeped in an intellectual culture, can appear remote from and even intimidating to small and medium-sized business.

The close links between local employers and colleges only make colleges more attractive to students with sights set on a job.

Colleges' ambitions in higher education are more than justified by their successes to date and, as this week's Hefce allocations reveal, the financial rewards to come.

The future looks bright for FE providers of HE, including some, like Jackie Fisher, who intend to pursue the polytechnic dream. Yet it is worth remembering, as John Widdowson says, that colleges trade successfully on a distinct higher education offer. Ambition must continue to foster that distinctiveness.

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