Professor dismisses vision of a single-sector future

Ian Nash

A mass higher education system bringing colleges and universities together in a single sector would damage schools and downgrade further education, a leading academic has warned.

Professor Peter Scott, director of the University of Leeds Centre for Policy Studies in Education, argued for a new tertiary sector combining the best of the local education authority and Further Education Funding Council strategies.

In a report commissioned by the Society of Education Officers, the former editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement urges politicians and policy makers to abandon any ideas of a single post-16 higher education system along US lines, the favoured model among supporters of a single sector.

"The American experience is not encouraging," he said. "It can be argued that the success of the American university as been bought at the expense of the failure of the American high school."

The length of time needed for initial education and training would grow because "less would be expected of secondary education." Coherence between pre-16 and post-16 education would become more difficult than ever, he said.

And, concerned that prestigious universities would dominate the scene, he warned: "Progression to other destinations than higher education, directly into employment, for example, would tend to be stigmatised."

Drawing on international comparisons with France, Germany, the Netherlands and California, Professor Scott proposed a "hybrid" scheme resonant of ideas put forward by David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman.

While retaining the best of the local authorityFEFC pattern, he set out plans for " a more coherent and better co-ordinated tertiary sector, more responsive to local and regional needs".

College governing bodies would be reformed to include more community representatives, tertiary providers would have to publish strategic plans in concert with others such as schools, TECs and employers and better regional planning would reduce the FEFC role to one of recommending funding models and checking quality.

He said efforts to unite the three strands of the tertiary system school sixth-forms, "new" FE colleges and employment training schemes were hampered at present by tensions between the need for planning and the dominance of market forces.

"Tertiary education needs a 'big idea' that binds together its disparate parts and distinguishes it from other phases" he said. "Post-16 participation must be increased, but in ways that do not deepen the divide between the haves and have-nots."

The SEO was sharply divided over the extent to which it should support Professor Scott's "compromise" model for tertiary education. One chief education officer described independence of colleges as "an unmitigated disaster" and wants them returned to the local authority fold.

Another said that relations had improved since incorporation. "Our relationship with the college has improved considerably since 1993. We have a contractual arrangement and can buy what we want, when we want, from the college."

SEO president Tony Webster said: "We commissioned this report to generate debate about the future of FE." One of the things which has alarmed the SEO is the fragmentation of education, with a range of bodies all responsible for education but offering no coherence across the range.

"Yes we differ on the report's recommendations. Many members do wish it went further. Equally, I have no doubt that many of our members would endorse the general direction of the report," he said.

Attractive though a university-led system may be it was "perhaps an idea for the next century rather than the present one," he said.

Professor Scott argued against the idea of a wholly regional structure for tertiary education because he said it would be too inflexible. He also dismissed the idea of an internal market along NHS lines as being insensitive to longer-term planning needs.

Findings of the report The Scott report studies six models for the future of further education but it rejects five. The report concludes that: * the present system lacks democratic accountability; * concentrating FE in colleges alone would tear schools apart; * local authorities have changed too much for it to be acceptable to return colleges to their control; * vouchers or learning credits cannot met all social and economic needs; * university-led federations would destroy the last vestiges of all-through secondary education.

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