Snakes and ladders of reform

Tony Higgins gets a sense of deja vu as he looks back over higher education innovations.

I began my working life as an administrator at the University of Leicester. I moved up the career ladder and having also spent a time on secondment to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, I was appointed to a senior post at Loughborough University. I was also elected chairman of the Conference of University Administrators.

It was therefore with confidence that I was familiar with higher education that in 1984 I took on the task of setting up an admissions system for the polytechnics which was to mirror the well-established system for the universities, the Universities' Central Council on Admissions.

To my horror, I discovered that I was no longer working in higher education but in the public sector of advanced further education (AFE). The then polytechnics offered both AFE and something which was new to me called Non Advanced Further Education (NAFE).

So, the sector whose first degree, post- graduate degree and Higher National Diploma programmes so impressed me with their vitality was not higher education at all but something called AFE. There was some talk of a concept of "bridges and ladders" which I soon began to appreciate.

Then the Government began to have visions of a new shape of higher education. Successive Green and White papers followed by Acts of Parliament proposed and created first the polytechnics and colleges higher education sector and then a single higher education sector. At last it seemed I had returned to my roots and I was working in higher education.

But wait. What happened? For various reasons there was an increased need for degree-level study to be available where no university or college of higher education existed. There was a ready solution. The relevant plant and staff existed in FE colleges and so degree and other HE level study was developed even more in those colleges.

Quite right too. We discovered years ago that it was impossible to measure at 11-plus whether a pupil was "suitable" for a grammar school or a secondary modern. Similarly, it is also not possible to gauge whether 18-plus is just the time when somebody should go to higher education or be consigned to some other kind of educational career. Hence began the obvious concept of the continuum of school, further education and higher education.

Two issues occur to me in late 1996. There is the possibility, that the general national vocational qualification level 4 will be introduced sooner rather than later. The higher education institutions have, in general, told the National Council for Vocational Qualifications consultation on the viability of GNVQ 4 (HND equivalent) that they are not in favour.

The FE colleges, on the other hand, have backed the proposals strongly and no wonder, since they are successfully teaching GNVQ level 3 (A-level equivalent). We have the prospect then of a significant level of higher education activity of GNVQ level 4 (and the funding that goes with it) being offered in the FE sector.

Second, there is the Prime Minister's proposal for a sports academy and a number of prestigious higher education institutions with a deservedly high reputation in sports science are reported to be keen to bid to host the academy.

But you don't switch sporting expertise on and off at 18 and there will be a role for schools and FE colleges in this particular area of the continuum of the development of young people.

The Further Education Funding Council is fortunate to have attracted David Melville as its new chief executive. His agenda will assuredly not be one of merging the FE and HE funding methodology but it will certainly be one of recognising the interdependence of one sector on the other and the need to recognise the school-FE-HE continuum.

Let us recall what happened nearly 30 years ago. Colleges of technology, commerce, art and design and others merged to form the polytechnics now universities. The polytechnics' special characteristics were that they taught both FE and HE, lots of part-time and full-time students, mature students and younger students Courses were geared to local economic needs.

We now have an independent FE sector where rationalisation (even planning?) is becoming the order of the day. So we have mergers of colleges who are teaching both FE and HE, large numbers of part-time as well as full-time students, large numbers of mature as well as younger students with courses geared to the local economy. Perhaps somewhere early into the next century the realisation will dawn that we have just recreated the polytechnics (and then more universities) all over again.

What price the FE and HE sectors? FE and AFE seems more like it.

Tony Higgins is vice-chairman of the Corporation of Gloucestershire College of Arts and Technology and chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

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