Our time has come to celebrate the difference

As the new kid on the college block and recent refugee from higher education, I found myself being asked recently if I had noticed any differences between the higher and further education sectors since becoming principal of Ayr College.

I fear the answers I gave were rather disappointing, as I feel the sectors in many ways are becoming more and more alike - even before the two funding councils merge. This is probably just as well as, despite the many important characteristics that make colleges distinct from higher education institutions, there is a tendency to overplay what sets us apart.

So what makes colleges different? On the positive side, there is no doubt that their success in reaching into the hearts of communities greatly enhances accessibility for learners in comparison with their HE counterparts.

Indeed, although many universities are highly successful in widening participation, the ability of colleges to deliver education and training where learners actually live and work, is often superior. For one thing, there are many more colleges than HEIs, but this dispersed and frequently highly localised college presence is enhanced further by very effective networks of outreach and learning centres - often in deprived communities with low participation rates.

Colleges are, by their nature, socially inclusive and highly successful in widening access to under-represented groups. For the new learner, taking the step to enrol on a course in college or university can seem daunting.

However, colleges have the advantage of offering smaller classes and supportive environments, which help give learners the necessary confidence to stay on and be successful. Colleges also offer courses and programmes spanning many levels, providing multiple entry and exit points to suit the learner - a clear example of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) in action.

On the negative side, there is the lower unit of resource in further education, the lack of headroom generally and the fact that so many people seem to hold several jobs at once.

On a personal note, as someone who has argued for years about the need for parity of esteem between further and higher education, and promoted the Higher National top-up articulation route as a means of obtaining a degree, I believe the time is now ripe to promote greater equity. The FE sector is not, and never has been, inferior to the HE sector. It's just different.

Too much is made of the distinctive nature of one or the other in terms of "better" or "worse". We do different jobs, but these are equally meritorious - and I think the colleges, and perhaps even a few universities, know that.

That may explain another thing I've noticed since coming to the sector: a new-found confidence and justifiable pride. A few weeks ago, I attended a dinner in Carnoustie held on the eve of a strategic dialogue event with the funding council. The guest speaker was Jim Wallace, Deputy First Minister, who said many positive things about the sector - including genuine acknowledgment of the crucial role colleges play in economic development and in securing future prosperity for Scotland.

It was perhaps not what he said that impressed most, but more his demeanour and the way he interacted with the principals gathered in the room. This was a minister who was totally at ease with everyone around him - and it was obvious that those in the room were perfectly at ease with someone who was prepared to express genuine appreciation for what further education has delivered for communities and local economies for many years.

The event was fascinating from another aspect. There was a tangible air of confidence among college principals, not unlike the confidence I had become accustomed to witnessing in university vice-chancellors. After having been out of local authority control for nearly 12 years, it seems the colleges have come of age. The principals were only too well aware of the success and recognition the sector had earned - and they sensed their time had come.

So, have I noticed any differences between the HE and FE sectors since becoming principal of Ayr College? The answer has to be yes - but not as many as you might think.

Professor Alex MacLennan is principal of Ayr College.

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