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Higher up on the Downs

One Epsom college sets out to provide a seamless route through further and higher education. NESCOT describes itself as Epsom's college of higher and further education. This year, just under half of the 4,500 students at what was formerly North East Surrey College of Technology are taking HE courses.

At the time of incorporation in 1992, it looked as if HE courses were destined to overtake FE programmes and become the major work of NESCOT. Only the Government's curb on HE expansion has prevented it from being in a position where it could apply to become an HE college.

"That would have made a big difference to us," explained principal John Strickson, a member of the Higher Education Funding Council. "At present a substantial amount of our HE work is funded by the FEFC. If we were to become an HE college then all of our funding would come from the HEFC, which is rather more generous."

This year NESCOT received Pounds 1.7 million directly from the HEFC, making it one of the 12 identified "mixed economy" colleges. The college received more than Pounds 8.3 million of its Pounds 16 million budget from the FEFC, including money for part-time HNC courses. More than Pounds 2 million is raised each year through fee income for HE courses.

Yet being a mixed economy college is not just about juggling figures and identifying sources of income. NESCOT attempts to provide students of all ages with a seamless route through further and higher education which can allow the same students to attend the college for up to 10 years.

Within what might easily be seen as a mini-university, the faculty of construction offers full and part-time craft courses, national diplomas and certificates, HNDs and HNCs, and BSc and masters degrees.

"All faculties have a mixture of FE and HE students," said Dr Strickson. "But we are not hung up on which students are which. We are geared towards providing what the market wants."

NESCOT, which has two spacious campuses on the edge of the Epsom Downs, tries to meet the needs of the local economy. A concentration of research laboratories and hospitals in Surrey and south-west London led to the development of courses in biological sciences and nursing.

Students travel from as far afield as Swindon and Dover to enrol for HE courses in environmental health and housing. "As more people came here we gained the reputation and the expertise," said Dr Strickson. "More than half of our intellectual energy goes into HE even if it looks as though our efforts are largely on FE."

About three quarters of the school of cell and molecular biology are HE students. They range from day-release students taking HNC courses to PhD students. Teacher John Osborn said students were attracted by the small class sizes and the vocational emphasis of the courses. "They equip people to go out into industry," he said.

Ann Burkitt, dean of the faculty of humanities, health and nursing, said the college had been in a better position than some HE institutions to respond to the changing needs of the medical profession.

The college employs 260 teaching staff. Although some teach both FE and HE, others devote all of their time to one sector. "A teacher's timetable is determined by their expertise," said Dr Strickson.

"Some people are attracted by the fact that they can teach a wide range of courses."

The presence of FE and HE courses within the same institution helped staff to understand the interface between the two sectors. "Our mission is to be an all-through college where people can get on to the educational ladder at a point which suits their expertise and get off when they have achieved what they set out to achieve."

Most facilities are used by both FE and HE classes. Although students were encouraged to mix, many only got to know those on the same course.

According to Dr Strickson, any divide tends to be between full and part-time students, rather than between those studying for FE or HE qualifications. "There is no intellectual divide," he said. "It is more of a question of what you end up with at the completion of a course."

All the HE courses provided at NESCOT are directly funded by either the HEFC or FEFC. Degree courses are normally validated by the Open University or through an HE institution.

Two years ago, NESCOT applied unsuccessfully for its own degree-awarding powers. In spite of its rejection, Dr Strickson said the college had the same experience as many of the newer universities. At the same time, he added, NESCOT never had any intention of giving up FE courses.

The college franchises out a construction course to Highbury College, Portsmouth, and also runs a joint course with West Sussex College of Agriculture. NESCOT had not been tempted to become a franchisee as it preferred to be a direct provider of courses. "We have more academic freedom to develop as we feel fit. We are not subject to the terms of other institutions."

Dr Strickson believes that limiting HE provision in FE to mixed economy colleges such as NESCOT would help to solve some of the Government's funding problems. Yet it was important that all FE colleges could still respond to local needs.

Although franchising provided a safety valve which allowed universities to expand, some colleges had gone into it for the wrong reasons. "They got onto the franchising bandwagon because they thought it would be a money-spinner, " he said. "If a college is to operate in the HE sector, it should be capable of developing its own programmes."

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