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Ministers blocked 'polytechnic' option

Fears over quality thwart the ambitions of colleges. Ian Nash reports

PLANS to give a handful of further and higher education colleges the majority share of the new degree market were abandoned by ministers after their advisers warned that they were not up to scratch.

In effect, the move would have created a new polytechnic sector out of just 23 FHE institutions, known as mixed-economy colleges. This was where ministers had considered focusing efforts to expand the new two-year foundation degrees.

Instead, they opted in last month's higher education White Paper for a broader programme of expansion allowing colleges with a majority of students on HE courses to apply for university status.

Margaret Hodge, higher education minister, told FE Focus: "When we looked at expansion of HE, one option under consideration was to concentrate it in the mixed-economy colleges. But we concluded that the quality was so variable that it would be the wrong way forward."

She said the key question was whether colleges were sustaining quality as well as meeting demand.

Ms Hodge revealed the Government's decision in an interview for a 16-page, post-14 special report published in The TES this week. Supported by the Learning and Skills Council, the report gives background to the biggest education consultation since Labour came to power six years ago.

Three radical reform programmes - a shake-up of 14-19 qualifications, changes to colleges proposed in Success for All and record expansion of HE - are being debated over six weeks at regional conferences organised by the LSC and the Department for Education and Skills.

The report marks the start of the promised expansion of FE and lifelong learning coverage in The TES. It gives an overview of proposed changes and looks at models of good practice to support the conferences.

Colleges are central to all the reforms, from the expansion of new specialisms and options for pupils aged 14-plus to the supply of new work-related foundation degrees.

Ms Hodge said: "If we are expanding HE and developing new qualifications, we have to be assured of quality".

Quality will be achieved through a network known as Foundation Degree Forward, which will be run by the universities to validate FE college degrees, she said. Many mixed-economy colleges were of very high quality, including Kingston, Northbrook and Ravensbourne. But a DfES source said a significant minority were "a serious concern for inspectors" when ministers were considering HE reforms.

The source also said minsters were worried about a deeper problem: "There is a real difference between FE and HE. People doing HE in FE simply are not of the calibre of those in universities."

Similar concerns were voiced at the Commons select committee discussion on the White Paper this week. Roger Brown, vice chair of the Standing Conference of Principals, which represents HE institutions in England and Northern Ireland, told MPs: "There is a difference in quality - and because of the differences in quality, most of the mergers planned (between FE colleges and universities) are not taking place for the moment."

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