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Poached beyond palatability

Cut-throat competition has resulted in some colleges losing up to 20 per cent of the HE numbers.

As institutions now have to set student target numbers for growth and to manage their affairs within a market driven environment, it is inevitable there will be problems with student recruitment and enrolments.

Poaching is one aspect that must cause concern. Some higher education institutions, particularly in the vocational education field, are using damaging tactics which have a particular impact on FE colleges which offer higher education provision.

Some college principals say they are losing up to Pounds 600,000 from their budgets because of higher education institutions poaching their students; some colleges have lost 10 or even 20 per cent of their HE roll, with institutions often phoning students at home.

The damage is so severe that some are failing to meet their growth targets and are having some of their budgets clawed back. In the current climate institutions have to reach their targets or be financially penalised.

Higher education in FE can be provided via Higher National Certificates or Diplomas linked to degree programmes, for example, "2+2" arrangements (two years in FE, two at university).

It has been carefully developed to offer quality programmes to students, either to gain a valuable HND award or, if they wish, to go on to a degree at college or a local university.

The extra year that the "2+2" programme offers, compared with a three-year degree, can be of immense benefit to students, especially if their previous experience andor qualifications are weak. This is particularly true for the younger student who has obtained relatively poor grades at A-level.

The current trend is worrying, not only for the impact on the students and the colleges, but ultimately on the higher education institutions.

Prospective students have the right to impartial and honest guidance for their ultimate benefit which must not be sacrificed by primarily institutional self-interest. Many FE colleges have been praised for this aspect of their work.

Stockport College, with other similar mixed economy colleges, has been successfully offering HNDs, "2+2" and degree programmes for a number of years.

These are not opportunist moves leading to unwarranted duplication of courses, nor are they about academic drift.

Programmes of study are complementary and not competitive with universities. Therefore, niche markets are most certainly closely linked to the world of work and provide progression opportunities to students.

There have been a number of worrying developments this year. Students already established on HND programmes have been contacted by institutions - well beyond the clearing house processes - offering them places on degree courses. This means that the targets that the colleges have set are now in shortfall.

This trend is occurring across most programme areas - for example, design, science, engineering and the built environment. Obviously students have every right to decide at which institution they study, but such tactics raise a number of fundamental questions. The motivation of the institutions must be questioned.

Nor is it just about institutional gain at the cost of what is best for the student.

The following illustration reflects my concerns: A young person came to the college wanting information about a "2+2" programme in science.

It appeared that a higher education institution had offered him a traditional three-year honours degree programme, in spite of attaining just one lowly graded A-level.

Not convinced by the arguments put forward by the institution that he could cope with the degree programme, he decided to seek further guidance from Stockport College.

He felt the "2+2" programme would be more suited to his situation, and he is now enrolled on the HND and optimistic he will progress on to a degree programme at a local university.

A similar situation is also occurring with the one-year A-level revision courses that many FE colleges have run successfully over many years. Students who have achieved poor grades and wish to improve their overall performance have often undertaken an intensive revision programme.

This year, particularly in the areas of science, many of these students have been approached by universities with offers for degree programmes.

Again it is important that students do have freedom of choice, but this does cause serious difficulties for colleges. Some courses can become unviable and are closed the remaining students cannot continue.

This leads quite rightly to angry exchanges between the students, their parents and the college; exchanges no doubt fuelled by the plethora of charters that now abound in education.

An interesting paradox is now clearly manifest: institutions are encouraged to play the market game, with cut-throat competition, in order to survive financially. This has then to be matched against the need to provide open, impartial and honest brokership guidance to students.

As one unpacks the issues associated with this matter a whole series of questions can arise: How can one best match institutional need against what is ultimately best for the student? Can providers develop open and honest guidance systems which allow clear choice and referral? Equally important are issues associated with student retention and achievement.

But I do worry that universities and other higher education institutions will soon experience low retention and achievement levels for students recruited following the late scrabble to achieve their student target numbers.

Dick Evans is principal of Stockport College of Further and Higher Education

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