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Home-grown excellence by degrees

Foundation degrees were a busted flush before the cards were ever dealt to further and higher education colleges. They were supposed to be a new route to vocational excellence, like no other qualifications before them. A two-year programme would give employers the balance of academic and work skills they were crying out for.

Unfortunately, the universities had other ideas. First, they saw them as a new two-plus-two award. Two years on the FD followed by two years for honours. They were soon spotted as a way of getting the best late developers into the groves of academe. Second, and partly as a consequence, many excellent HND courses are being converted to foundation degrees or dying on their feet.

The Learning and Skills Council heard the alarm bells months ago, as colleges reported an exodus of students from tried and tested diploma programmes. Employers did not come forward in the numbers hoped for to support the degrees, nor did sufficient numbers of apprentices see them as a route to excellence.

The Government's target is for 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds to participate in higher education by the year 2010. However, universities take that to mean entry to their institutions for full degrees, regardless of the consequences. This is not expansion or widening participation but elitism.

The creation of a degree-equivalent qualification for FE colleges, as we report on page 1, could be the answer. There is already a hierarchy of degrees, top-down from those awarded by Oxbridge, the Russell Group and pre-1992 universities to former polytechnics and those franchised to FHE colleges. So, why not scrap the assumed university monopoly and reform the whole agenda?

This calls for even more radical thinking. Alongside the new awards, why not scrap the system of HE accreditation and give individual colleges "degree" awarding powers? There is no reason why locally grown awards could not attain national status. This is, after all, what the universities do.

You cannot get more local than Cambridge - a small town in the Fens.

No other country in the modern industrial world has an accreditation system quite as archaic - and certainly not as bureaucratic - as the UK. Success with home-grown exams on the national stage would also help raise reputations for FE colleges. It would also force the universities to think harder about what sort of hand they are dealing students.

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