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Few shedding tears as death knell sounds for FE degree

Filton College in Bristol has just 60 of its 10,000 students doing higher education courses but that is set to change radically under the Dearing proposals.

These call for a massive expansion of sub-degree courses in FE colleges.

Hilary Cowell, the principal of Filton and president of the Association of Principals of Colleges, said: "We have a range of Higher National Diplomas from management to applied psychology on the stocks. It is the sort of thing the universities are just not interested in doing. "

But vagaries of funding schemes and the rigid FE-HE divide have hampered efforts to expand and satisfy the needs of local people.

Many colleges have lucrative franchise deals with universities but Filton is a mile from the University of the West of England - too close for UWE to see a benefit.

Students on the Filton HND courses have, however, progressed rapidly through degree courses. "The UWE is very responsive and will take them on to turn their HND into a degree in one year."

She added: "For many people the HND is an end in itself. A 21-year-old in full-time education might be tempted to go on to UWE after an HND in leisure and tourism but many older people want to reach this stage for professional or personal advancement and stop there.

"People have a mistaken attitude to the HND. In business and industry, it is well-known and liked."

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, HNDs are provided by Edexcel (formed when University of London's exams board and the Business and Technology Education Council merged). Dr Paul Gibbs, head of HE, said: "If this recommendation is agreed, it should at last break the vision that the only thing worth having in higher education is a degree."

Dick Evans, principal of Stockport College of Further and Higher Education agrees. "I will not regret the passing of the degree in FE." He currently has 200 students on degree courses. "If I can expand HNDs and HNCs on my own terms and not depend on universities then the Dearing proposals sound sensible and positive. The degrees we offer are for a small niche market validated by the universities, we would not lose much."

Stockport has 16,500 students, including 3,600 part-timers on every type of further and higher course from general national vocational qualifications to part-time degrees and HNCs. It suffered dramatically in the freeze on HE expansion three years ago.

Its dependence on the universities and loss of funding for courses from the HE Funding Council for England hit high-cost courses hard. Some of the courses vital to Britain's economic recovery, such as engineering and construction, were cut.

The principals and senior managers say the only way to ensure sustained economic recovery is to hand control of such sub-degree senior technician courses to colleges.

Funding rules must alter radically if sub-degree work is to grow. Most colleges get only the tuition fees for the courses. No core funding is available from the HEFCE for colleges outside the sector. This has created an advantage in encouraging the growth of HE far more cheaply than in universities, but it has also hampered expansion.

Not everyone is happy with the committee's call for a moratorium on degrees in FE colleges. While fewer than one in 10 students gained first-class degrees nationally, four out of nine business studies students at Gateshead College got firsts.

Chris Hughes, the principal, said: "This demonstates what can be achieved,given the righ opportunity, by FE and adult students."

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