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Moving FE from closed shops to open doors

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The university of Teesside cancelling validation arrangements with a number of partner colleges has caused a predictable furore in FE.

Amid renewed calls for awarding powers to be granted more widely, it shows one aspect of the fragility of offering degrees in colleges.

If “HE in FE” is a policy as well as a sector priority, then should it be subject to the whim of universities? Is it a “closed shop” practice or, in universities minister Jo Johnson’s words, “akin to Byron Burger having to ask McDonald’s for permission to open a new restaurant”? Other markets don’t function like this, do they?

But before becoming too indignant, it should be acknowledged that exactly the same criticisms could be made about subcontracting: colleges that charge a premium to training providers delivering apprenticeships and other work-based learning programmes on their behalf. Why are these arrangements equally subject to whim, personal fallouts or to “strategic changes”?

In both cases the better, justifiable relationships tend to be those based on a strategic rather than purely transactional arrangement. In other words, this needs to be about more than simply buying and selling services in a market, whether student numbers or validating degrees.

Whatever policy or market ideology suggests, it’s no way to run either system. So we might decide that these markets need to be regulated to cut out restrictive practices. In both cases, this diverts resources from teaching and learning to rent seeking. This is wasteful and pointless.

'Different thinking'

However, we might take another step back and decide that there are more pressing market or policy failures that require different thinking.

The HE market does not necessarily want for more full-time degree provision. Domestically at least, it’s a contracting market with more and more providers and less and less young school or college leavers – at least for the next decade or so. Much more urgent is the need for new types of provision, especially at higher technical levels.

On this basis, colleges should be arguing for validation arrangements that enable them to deliver high-level, labour market-specific skills. They might also be arguing for partnerships that support such provision.

This seems to me at least to be a better argument for intervention – reinventing something like the Council for National Academic Awards, abolished in 1992. But not to merely validate conventional degrees. Rather, it would add more to both sectors if it could support and stimulate growth in specialist provision.

It could break open the “closed shop” of Higher National Diplomas and Higher National Certificates or provide a fast track for validating higher apprenticeship frameworks. There would also be an argument for incorporating (or abolishing) foundation degrees and the awarding powers that deliver them, too.

But the broader argument is not about levelling the playing field. It is about developing the skills and qualifications that the economy needs and the teaching and learning that delivers it. Qualifications and awarding or validation arrangements come afterwards. For policymakers and colleges, this shouldn’t be about easing market entry or competition in the easiest, most congested markets but rather about incentivising and validating different types of provision.

It’s surely time that we compete by offering degrees or higher-level skills in different ways. Specialist technical skills, part-time and work-based degrees and higher apprenticeships could be just the start.

Andy Westwood is associate vice-president for public affairs at the University of Manchester; professor of politics at the University of Winchester; and a former government special adviser. @AndyWWestwood

This is an article from the 1 April edition of TESThis week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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