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Let colleges deliver more HE in FE

Comment: Alan Thomson

Comment: Alan Thomson

Last year, when Newcastle College became the first further education provider to get more money for higher education teaching than a university, this paper hailed its success as a blow against universities' monopoly on degrees.

This year, Blackburn College joins it in this most selective of FE groups (page 1). Blackpool and The Fylde, Bradford and Grimsby Institute are not far behind, tailgating the smaller universities, no doubt preparing to overtake them in coming years.

As John Widdowson, chair of the mixed economy group of colleges, said last year, it is not just about the amount of HE in FE but also the nature of the provision.

Blackburn, Blackpool and The Fylde and Grimsby bear this out. All do a mix of honours and foundation degrees but, more importantly, provide these locally and as part of an educational ladder that offers progression from basic literacy and numeracy to degree level and beyond.

The local flavour of much of college HE is noticeable, responding to industry with a granularity that would make little economic sense for most universities. For example, Blackpool and The Fylde specialises in marine biology and tourism management, while Grimsby offers HE qualifications in refrigeration and logistics.

Add to this the high levels of educational and pastoral support offered by colleges compared to universities and it is clear they are perfecting a new model for HE delivery.

Some say it is not that new - polytechnics trod this path before metamorphosing into universities in the 1990s.

What is important is the control that colleges have over their HE strategies. It is illuminating that the most successful providers have their own HE numbers, with funding paid directly to them by the Higher Education Funding Council for England rather than through partner universities.

As Les Ebdon writes opposite, it would be a mistake if cash-strapped universities cut back on franchised provision. There are clear benefits, yet it is right to ask whether the current level of HE in FE franchising is sustainable or even desirable in future.

The successes of the colleges we feature this week are proof that the FE education system can deliver, on its own, accessible, employer-orientated and cost-effective HE.

The next government must look to capitalise on this.

Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus


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