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FEfocus Editorial - Degrees bring power and a problem

New College Durham and Newcastle College deserve praise for taking a historic step for FE in becoming the first institutions to gain the powers to award degrees (page 23).

For now, this just means foundation degrees, but with the Government having signalled in the higher education white paper that it may loosen requirements to award honours degrees, who knows where it may end?

At the same time, the system of awarding bodies is becoming increasingly byzantine. The college of the future may have the power to award its own foundation degrees, and may even upgrade itself to "university college" status to award honours degrees, while also buying in HE accreditation from a mixture of other universities, other colleges, and even new external awarding bodies.

Meanwhile, it may also award some of its lower-level courses itself, pay for accreditation from existing awarding bodies for others or carry out training for employer-specific courses that will be accredited by businesses themselves.

Ministers doubtless love this prospect, which certainly ticks the boxes of choice, diversity and competition. But it also reflects something of a crisis in our sense of the purpose of education, which in the past has determined who is able to bestow legitimacy on qualifications.

Historically, the awarding bodies grew out of university boards, which accredited A-levels to ensure they did their job as passports to university. But with the advent of GCSEs, their increasing independence found its culmination in the sale of Edexcel to a multinational corporation.

Meanwhile, the direct oversight of employers as the arbiter of quality in vocational education has weakened in the same way. City amp; Guilds is part of the professional educational establishment more than it is an offshoot from the City of London livery companies. BTECs are no longer administered by technical councils drawn from industry but again by Edexcel, to further the interests of its parent company's shareholders.

To an extent, blurring the lines of the accreditation system has been inevitable. It is not enough for qualifications to serve the narrow interests of employers or to act simply as university entrance exams. Tens of thousands of students may find themselves in the borderlands of academia and vocational training or crossing over between the territories several times in their life.

But the possibility of crossover does not warrant a system of bewildering complexity, enormous duplication and a weakened link between exam standards and the requirements of higher-level study or employment, which comes from allowing almost any organisation to apply to be an awarding body.

The emerging system will require regulators to instil some sense of consistency. But regulators as a group have not distinguished themselves lately: like referees in sport, they avoid making calls at crucial points if they can rather than risk making themselves conspicuous targets for blame if they get it wrong.

If there is to be such a vast array of awarding bodies, it is only fair that FE colleges should be among them: they should have been in the queue ahead of individual employers and profit-making exam boards. But this patchwork is not a coherent answer to the question of where the authority to determine academic or vocational standards comes from. It looks like the Government's answer to that is a shrug.

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