The gap between Bradford College and the University of Bradford is no thicker than a party wall. But for years, the gap between them in terms of the status and independence of their higher education (HE) courses was huge.
Some time this year, the college will pass a milestone in changing that. Assuming it negotiates the final hurdle in a four-year process, it will become the first further education (FE) college to be able to award its own honours degrees, instead of relying on university accreditation. That will be perhaps the biggest step in a decade-long, nationwide process during which colleges have increasingly designed their own HE courses, earned their own allocation of student places instead of franchising them from universities and gained the power to award foundation degrees - the equivalent of the first two years of a BA or BSc.
As principal Michele Sutton points out, Bradford College was the parent institution of the university, so this independence seems long overdue. In the early 1960s, before the expansion of HE began in earnest, FE colleges taught more than a quarter of all England's degree-level students - 42,800 out of 118,000 in 1962-63.
But with the expansion of HE came the notion that a university was the only proper place to study for a degree. In 1957, the HE element of Bradford Technical College, as it was then called, was separated to form the Bradford Institute of Technology in order to meet the increasing demand for advanced technical skills. Within a decade, the institute had been transformed into a university as part of the government review that first prompted Kingsley Amis in 1960 to grumble: "More will mean worse." In the 1990s, the polytechnics followed the same path.
But Bradford College, like many other FE institutions, is not interested in taking the same route to university status. Nick Davy, HE policy manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC), says that in many ways, colleges are determined to cling to a polytechnic ideal. "The majority of colleges see themselves as having a vocational, technical mission around meeting the needs of local employers. None of our colleges want to be universities, they are something different. I don't think any of them are going to be awarding research degrees," he says.
"The original ideal of the polytechnic was having that all-in provision, that slightly romantic idea of all lights blazing at 9pm at night as people came in for night school and an HND (higher national diploma). We come from that tradition and don't want to leave it."
The overhaul of the funding of HE has presented the government with a problem - how to stop the rush by universities to charge the maximum pound;9,000-a-year fees: an alternative system of HE in FE colleges seems to be the perfect solution.
Suddenly, the idea of offering increasing support to institutions that make affordable HE their mission seems more attractive than ever. "FE colleges that can offer small teaching groups and close links with employers - as well as teaching at convenient times in convenient places to reach out to non-traditional learners - should thrive in this new landscape," David Willetts, the universities and science minister, told the AoC last year.
Willetts proposed what he nicknamed an "opportunities fund": a reserve of 20,000 student places held back for institutions charging less than the average of pound;7,500 in fees. It was the final piece of the puzzle for colleges seeking to control their own destiny in HE: the chance to increase their student numbers in a competitive market or to gain an independent allocation for the first time.
In this, they were very successful, winning more than half of the 20,000 places available for this autumn. But it prompted a strong response from universities, which were not prepared to let their dominance of HE go unchallenged, and which pointed out that they were losing student places despite being oversubscribed. Their lobbying worked, perhaps even better than expected: in 2013-14, the "opportunities fund" will offer only 5,000 new places, when many were predicting tens of thousands more. It leaves FE colleges wondering if they can still find a way to keep the polytechnic tradition alive.
"A lot of my friends have done things like law degrees and graduated, but it's so difficult for them to find a job that they are working in places like call centres," says Shanaz Dawood. The 23-year-old was studying for the final exam in her BSc in project management at Blackpool and The Fylde College, which would take place the next day.
Many of her friends graduated years before her, but she does not feel like she has fallen behind. Dawood is working for BAE Systems on its project control foundation programme, which means she works full-time for the defence and aerospace company with one day off a week to complete her degree over five years. "My social life is very small," she jokes.
So while her sixth-form college contemporaries are underemployed in undemanding jobs, Dawood has helped to project-manage a pound;25 million contract for Eurofighter Typhoon jets, complete with custom software for the client.
"Sometimes, when you are in college and you don't know what career path you are going to take - some people are set on doing something scientific or mathematical, others aren't really sure - if you get someone like BAE Systems pitching this to you, they sold it to me on the benefits," she says. "You can work and study academically, you get a degree, they pay for it, you get a professional qualification and there are no student fees. It's quite an attractive prospect."
When she and another student on the programme were chosen as the first FE college students to present at the British Conference of Undergraduate Research, Dawood admits that she had some anxiety about whether the education she had received would measure up to that of students from universities. "It was quite daunting at first, there were people from Oxford and Cambridge there. But the theme was collaboration between work and academia. In that sense, I felt one step ahead of them, really," she says.
"Afterwards, a lecturer from Bournemouth University said that the standard of my presentation was comparable to one by a student at Oxford and that our grasp of methodology was PhD-level. I definitely think the quality is high enough. A college can provide a university-standard education."
This course embodies what many see as the advantages of FE. It is rooted in its locality, focused on meeting the needs of students and employers nearby - BAE's Warton aerodrome is just outside the town. It draws on experience in technical and vocational education. And although BAE focused on recruiting school-leavers, much HE-in-FE provision has an emphasis on lifelong learning - about two-thirds of its places are part-time and often taken up by older students.
On visiting Bradford College, it is striking how many of the HE students, and even the staff, had previously studied at the college. In the teacher training department, they tell the story of a former student who became pregnant at 14 and whose education at school was badly interrupted. She came to college, progressing through the levels of basic skills, GCSEs and A levels until eventually she qualified as a teacher. Recently, she applied to work at the college. "There is a lot of talk about widening participation, reaching different groups. We live it here, because of the students we have got," says Clive Opie, dean of the McMillan School of Teaching, Health and Care at the college.
As colleges increasingly become involved in sponsoring academies, even at primary level, it raises the possibility of them becoming truly lifelong institutions, responsible for the education of people in their locality at every age and level. So far, about 30 colleges have become approved sponsors.
But AoC's Davy questions how much colleges have really gained through Willetts' opportunity fund. While headlines focused on FE's share of the places, Davy says that the numbers were relatively small. And even as colleges won directly funded places from universities, the universities responded by withdrawing their franchised places. According to an AoC survey, nearly a third of colleges will have their partnerships with universities terminated by 2013. He "guesstimates" that the net gain to colleges in 2012 has been about 7,000 places, just 1.5 per cent of the total in HE.
"All this stuff about a revolution is really not true. It's actually very small-scale," Davy says. "We have got to be careful we don't destabilise the system, which does have a world-class reputation. But there is demand for courses that are less expensive. What we need is a much more diverse HE system that is not dominated by three-year bachelor's degrees and has more part-time, more two-year, more flexible options."
Others, such as John Rowe, Newcastle College's director of HE, are less cautious. "There are probably arguments in favour of destabilising the system. Most people start from the premise of defending their own position," he says.
He points out that the control that universities are trying to exert on student places could block off progression routes for some students. Some universities were refusing to accredit the "top-up" year that converts a foundation degree into a full honours degree, unless the final year is taken at the university instead of the college. The only problem is that there may not be a third-year place at university for those college students.
"The progression route is guaranteed, but there is no guarantee of a place," he says. "The consequence is that students will be encouraged to progress, although they won't always be able to offer them a place. It seems a bit immoral."
But Rowe also criticises the allocation of the 20,000 places in the opportunity fund. Newcastle College is one of the largest providers of HE in FE with about 3,500 places, so it has an interest in seeing numbers grow at the bigger institutions. He argues that, just as colleges criticise small school sixth-forms as inefficient, many of the 60 colleges receiving a direct allocation of HE places for the first time might struggle for viability.
"I find it difficult to understand why a college would want 100 or even 200 HE places, unless they don't fully understand the resources or the time that it is going to take," he says. "Is it the case that it's just another funding stream? I have always thought that you need a real critical mass of students."
It appears to be a deliberate strategy by the government to support as much diversity as possible, perhaps even at the expense of efficiency, much like the free schools policy in primary and secondary education. Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE, which represents newer universities and colleges, says he believes ministers have no interest in creating a block of HE in FE provision to rival universities. "I don't think ministers view it as stratification, so much as `Let 1,000 flowers bloom'," he says.
In his view, that suits the role of HE in FE, which is to fill gaps in provision that universities can't supply. "It's what we call `cold-spot provision': geographical as well as subject-based. It has been around as long as both HE and FE," Westwood says. "My analysis is that the majority of HE in FE has been to address some kind of need that isn't readily available in HE."
But in some cases it is the colleges' unique ability to cater for "cold spots" that is at risk. Ellen Thinnesen, dean of HE at Grimsby Institute, says that there are signs of universities refusing to validate "non- comparable" provision - courses that the university itself does not offer. At her college, courses in refrigeration engineering - important for the town's food industry - are among those at risk.
But Westwood says that expanding the "opportunity fund" is not the answer when universities were oversubscribed. "It isn't going to look very convincing if people say they want to go to university and the places are somewhere else, at an FE college or wherever," he says. "That has been the strong message from Hefce (the Higher Education Funding Council for England)."
Indeed, where there has been a fall in demand for HE places, it has been in part-time places for mature students, FE's core constituency. But this is the group that is most likely to be price-sensitive, and it is the less expensive places that are most strictly rationed.
Willetts says that the danger of recreating a two-tier - academic and polytechnic - system was behind the restriction on the opportunity fund (also known as "core and margin" for the way it creates a margin out of institutions' core allocation of places which is then offered to low-cost bidders). "If you had a much bigger core-and-margin, you would have a kind of binary system. You might want a binary system, but I don't want to deliver one," he says.
Business secretary Vince Cable indicated to colleges earlier this year that he wanted to go further in freeing up places for competition, branding the controls on student numbers as "Stalinist". Following the announcement that only 5,000 extra places would be opened up for college bids next year, Willetts was pragmatic: "I don't like it, but that's the way it has to be."
He also refused to criticise institutions that had obstructed colleges' attempts to compete, such as Leeds Metropolitan University, which has ended many of its partnerships with colleges and put restrictions on those that remain, or the University of Central Lancashire, which forced its college partners to charge the maximum pound;9,000 fees, prompting at least one to end the relationship.
Speaking to colleges last year, Willetts said: "If FE colleges can offer good-quality degrees at a more competitive price than a validating university does at its home campus, then I'm all in favour. Universities should not impede cost-effective provision of HE by colleges. It will be a backwards step if FE colleges are squeezed out of the market by universities seeking to claw back franchised places."
But asked about the behaviour of Leeds Met and Uclan, he said: "I don't think you should assume that all those universities are necessarily anti- competitive. There are lots of reasons why universities take these decisions."
Can colleges find a way around the restrictions and the control of universities? One solution is the route taken by Dawood, the student whose course is paid for by BAE. Some colleges, including Newcastle, are looking at ways to appeal directly to employers and students to fund HE places without government support. After all, as Willetts says: "The decision is now in the hands of the students."
There is one catch. Although the Blackpool students funded by BAE do not pay a penny and do not cost the government a penny, for every place an employer funds, a publicly funded place disappears - it all counts towards the institution's quota. The AoC has already called for the right to recruit "off quota" and at no cost to government. In the same speech in which he promised to tackle anti-competitive behaviour by universities, Willetts said it was under consideration. But, perhaps with good reason, some are sceptical that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will let colleges recruit freely. As Rowe puts it: "The thing that's worrying the government is that they will lose control."
And thus the idea that colleges may resuscitate the original polytechnic dream remains a battle that needs to be fought and won.
Illustration: Paul Bateman