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Fears for access credibility

Plans to give the further education sector control of vetting access courses for more than 30,000 adults have sparked fears that the programmes will lose credibility with university admissions tutors.

The Higher Education Quality Council currently sets national standards for courses which have become a leading alternative to A-levels for late developers and mature students hoping to go into HE.

Most courses were home-grown by FE colleges - often with university backing - to meet rapidly-growing demand from adult returners thanks to university expansion in the 1980s. Many university admissions tutors were wary of standards and so the HEQC set a national kitemark.

But now the council says courses should be the domain of FE. It is investigating how other bodies such as the Business and Technology Education Council or National Open Colleges Network might define the standards locally-grown courses must meet.

The council stressed that at present it was "a serious consideration". But a change of control looks certain. Sir Ron Dearing's inquiries into 16 to 19 qualifications and into HE helped lead the council to a rethink.

Sir Ron's first report stressed the need for continuity between the 16-19 framework and the routes open to adult returners. In the HE inquiry, he is charged with clearly defining HE. The switch of control over access courses is generally accepted as a helpful clarification.

However, the plans have been greeted with caution by the Association for Colleges. John Brennan, AFC policy director, told The TES: "When the council took over responsibility for quality assurance a few years ago, it put these courses on a proper footing. We would not wish to see that undermined."

The possible switch also raises questions about why the whole of FE does not have its own quality council, independent of the Further Education Funding Council.

One reason cited is that FE courses are largely externally validated while HE is internally validated.

This has led to a long-running debate over comparability of degrees between universities.

"Whoever takes control of the access courses, we must be satisfied that that body has the right expertise, resources and standards to maintain credibility as well as quality," said Mr Brennan.

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