Calls are growing for colleges to be given greater powers to award degrees themselves, after a report raised concerns about further education institutions being forced to rely on qualifications that are accredited by partner organisations.
The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) annual review, published yesterday, reveals that more than one in seven (15 per cent) of the recommendations for improvement it made to colleges in 2014-15 related to Higher Nationals awarded by Pearson. This has prompted the QAA to publish guidance for colleges to help them “distinguish between their own and their awarding bodies’ management responsibilities”.
The report states that although “at its best, college higher education continues to provide a learning experience that exceeds UK expectations”, the QAA is still working “to embed a culture of scholarship in further education colleges”.
Although just one university received an unsatisfactory judgement in 2014-15, 17 colleges – more than a quarter of those inspected – received at least one unsatisfactory rating.
A spokesman for the Pearson awarding body told TES that some colleges had “fallen short of the recruitment and teaching standards that both QAA and Pearson expect”, and that it had taken “tough action” by blocking certification and recruitment.
The findings raise questions over whether colleges – which largely rely on outside organisations such as universities and Pearson to accredit their HE provision – should have degree-awarding powers.
Nick Davy, HE policy manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC), said the main problem for its members that relied on outside organisations to award degrees was the “inconsistency of the service” they received. In some cases the validating bodies provided “a fair amount of support for their colleges”, while others provided “less great support”, he added.
An AoC report to be published soon will call for more colleges to be given awarding powers to develop their own technical education at levels 3, 4 and 5. At present, only four colleges are able to award foundation degrees: Grimsby Institute, New College Durham, Newcastle College and Warwickshire College. Seven more are applying for the powers.
A report by the Policy Exchange thinktank published last week calls for colleges to be allowed to partner with the new institutes of technology to create degree-level qualifications, rather than with universities.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that some college-university partnerships were effective, but others worked “less well”. He added that although there were issues with some qualifications accredited by Pearson, it was important that “as a country we do not lose the benefit of good HNDs and HNCs”.
The spokesman for Pearson said its priority was to “uphold the standards of these qualifications, so that learners who achieve them have the high level of knowledge and skill that employers and higher-education institutions expect”.
He added: “We are very confident that those learners who have achieved a HND deserved it. Nevertheless, some centres have fallen short of the recruitment and teaching standards that both QAA and Pearson expect. Where we have discovered that centres have not recruited with integrity we have taken tough action, including blocking certification and recruitment.”