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Loans fear may benefit colleges

Ian Nash on why debts may drive students towards diploma courses

Anxiety over vast debts under the Government's planned charges for higher education will make two-year diplomas more attractive than degrees for many students, further education managers said this week.

Almost all colleges contacted by The TES, following publication last week of Sir Ron Dearing's review of higher education, said they expected a surge of interest in Higher National Diplomas and Certificates.

Many new universities offer one-year courses to convert the HND into a degree. And most of the more established universities will cut a year off the degree course for a student from the diploma course. This could cut a student's loan burden by up to Pounds 7,000, college principals have calculated.

The full-time HND and part-time HNC courses grew rapidly in popularity through the 1980s, peaking at more than 170,000 students. But the 1993 government freeze on higher education expansion led to an immediate slump, with a fall of 5,000 applications, almost entirely in FE colleges.

Uptake has continued to fall by at least 2,500 each subsequent year as universities have driven down their entry-level qualifications and allegedly poached students from the colleges in shortage subjects.

The Association of Colleges believes the new demands for better quality controls and the shift in emphasis to sub-degree level qualifications will lead to a renewal of higher education in FE colleges.

The issue of charges for tuition is likely to be a big influence, says policy director John Brennan. "The changed financial position is bound to make students think more carefully about what options they choose. For many the two-year option will be first choice."

Many principals said they were planning sponsorship deals and bursaries with industry - unhappy about what it sees as a lowering of standards among graduates.

The principal of a large further and higher education college in the North said: "Employers have already approached us complaining of the poor quality degrees new universities offer."

Several colleges told The TES they were concerned that the "freeze" on degrees in further education colleges would be counter-productive, "driving a wedge" between further and higher education, said one, rather than encouraging closer links.

But this was the minority view. Hilary Cowell, principal of Filton College, takes over North East Surrey College of Technology this autumn, where one-third of the 10,000 students is in HE.

"I think the universities will see the benefits of taking HND and HNC students from the further education sector even more than they do already," she said.

Two-thirds of all HND students are currently in HE and two-thirds of HNC students are in FE. A change of policy along Sir Ron Dearing's lines could increase FE recruitment by 50,000 full-time equivalent students each year.

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