FROM September students at Derby College could be offered a new credit card to help them into higher education. But it will not lead them down the slippery snake of student debt.
The Derby gold card, aimed at those not taking the traditional A-level route into a university place, is designed to help them notch up Open College Network credits. It would also give them privileges such as access to a laptop computer for home study. Grades reflecting academic achievement are stored on the card. The more grades, the more privileges.
Although available to all students taking level 3 programmes (A-level equivalent), it is aimed primarily at those on vocational courses, and at adult learners rather than A-level candidates.
Students at Derby College already earn credits toward national qualifications and get extra support in skills such as research or dissertation writing.
"It could be somebody taking an NVQ level 3, somebody in construction who might want to go on to university to do an HND," says vice-principal Angela Toon. "But we know that with an NVQ level 3 craft qualification alone they won't have the skills. The gold card provides those skills."
The learning "credit card" for students was successfully piloted at the former Derby Tertiary College, Wilmorton, which last year merged with Mackworth College and Broomfield agricultural college to form Derby College. "It reinforced the partnership between further and higher education and is an an excellent way to widen participation," said Ms Toon.
Its adoption on a larger scale is just one of several initiatives brought about by a collaboration between the University of Derby and a network of FE colleges. Such partnerships have been boosted by the Government's new higher education White Paper, which focuses on widening access.
Derby University has been at the forefront of partnerships with further education. It was the first university to merge with an FE institution when it joined with High Peak College in 1998.
The university has also developed its first foundation degrees. One such degree is in "supporting learners" and is aimed at those working with learners in the community and voluntary sector. Another foundation degree is in early-years education and care.
The partnership has helped to widen participation; 71 per cent of applicants from Derbyshire schools and colleges come through further education and just over a tenth of its full-time students enter with access or foundation qualifications.
The university's School of Access and Further Education devises recruitment strategies aimed at local communities, schools and colleges and specifically targets colleges with high numbers of disadvantaged students.
Many adult learners with few or no qualifications are recruited through specially designed access programmes.
A crucial factor easing progression from further to higher education in Derbyshire has been the use of a credit accumulation and transfer system in which learners get credits alongside traditional qualifications. The system is now recognised in the university's partnership colleges in Derbyshire and neighbouring Nottinghamshire. It gives students greater flexibility in their studies as they can stop if they need to, and then pick up where they left off at a later date.
"Students get accreditation for units of their national qualifications," says Professor Beverly Sand, dean of lifelong learning at the university.
"If for any reason they don't quite get the grades they expected, or they're outstanding in some other area, then that can all count towards their credit target - and that's often more useful to our admission staff because they can see more explicitly what a learner has done."
And links between further and higher education are helping students in other ways. The college has an FEHE group which oversees all progression routes; they share staff and resources with the university and students can go on taster courses.
So far, Government ministers have been reluctant to support a credit accumulation and transfer system in England to match such moves in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Its use in England has been limited to pockets where consortia of colleges and universities have adopted local credit frameworks, as in Derbyshire.
But the new White Paper on higher education gives the Government's strongest commitment to such a system so far, and calls for "widespread and consistent use of credit across higher education".
Professor Roger Waterhouse, vice-chancellor of the University of Derby, welcomes the change.
He said. "For years, we've been pursuing this vision of post-school education which is seamless. But until quite recently, the Government was not supporting that at all.
"The White Paper is strong on statement of intent in moving in that direction, and not prescriptive. In policy terms, what we've been doing for years is now flavour of the month and we welcome that."
Indeed, Professor Waterhouse believes that the lack of Government support for the credit system in the past may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
"We have a system that's built from the bottom up," he said. "It will be well-founded and deliverable, rather than a bright idea that has been handed down which we don't own and can't make work."