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New dimension adding prestige and knowledge

In addition to the advantages that powerful patronage and deep pockets bring, universities derive much of their status from their heritage as communities of scholars.

This legacy, with roots in the earliest academies to emerge from the classical world, has allowed universities to claim an intellectual integrity and purity that, over the years, has bought them valuable immunity from the real world and its vicissitudes. As a result, universities are among the oldest and most respected institutions in the world.

So, a proposal to encourage more scholarship in further education by setting up a national research and development centre has to be a good idea.

However - and the Learning and Skills Improvement Service is right to emphasise the point - it would be wrong if a further education research and development centre put money into researching a unifying theory of life, the universe and vocational skills. Blue skies and theoretical research has its place and that is, by and large, in universities. They will continue to produce this knowledge and some of it will be relevant to further education.

What the FE sector gets from its own research centre is applied research, otherwise known as "useful stuff". Some of this research will be carried out with colleagues in higher education; some of it will be entirely home- grown in the sector. All of it will, hopefully, be immediately applicable to further education, its problems and challenges.

Tangible outcomes, however useful, are only part of the story. Just as universities and academics derive authority and esteem from their research activities, so should further education providers and their staff see their professional status raised by engaging in research.

Too many in further education are left with the sense that they are so busy doing what is asked of them - and that is a lot - that they have no time to reflect on their work or improve upon it in any meaningful way. This production line mentality is the antithesis of professional autonomy and responsibility and it does nothing to enhance the status of those working in further education, which is a stated aim of Learning and Skills Improvement Service and bodies such as the Institute for Learning.

In proposing a further education research and development centre, the LSIS promises to add a precious dimension to the work of the sector and the people in it: it will give them the time and the space to think.

Further education owes it to itself to seize this opportunity. Research ideas and strategies for the new centre must be of the sector and for the sector. Higher education retains considerable control over its research. FE must do the same.

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