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Stepping stone dominates

The FE funding chiefs unsurprisingly champion the colleges sector in their submission to Dearing. Lucy Ward reports. The distinctive two-year higher education courses offered by further education colleges will lie at the heart of an expanded HE system, the committee examining the future of HE has been told.

In a submission to the Dearing Committee, FE funding chiefs say the future of HE will be dominated by the kind of sub-degree programmes already widely available in colleges.

The Further Education Funding Council paper, which, unsurprisingly, champions the colleges sector, cites labour market and other evidence showing HE provision in the future is likely to be increasingly local, vocational, flexible and responsive to community needs.

Rising demand for local provision will inevitably mean a greater role for FE colleges, which already deliver around one-eighth of all HE programmes, the FEFC suggests.

Colleges' main contribution to HE at present is the provision of two-year courses, which may be used by students either as an end in themselves or as a stepping-stone to full degrees.

These higher national certificates and diplomas, together with other professional awards, are precisely the qualifications increasingly being sought by employers, the FEFC says, and suggests colleges will be best placed to mop up the growth.

The Dearing Committee, which is not due to report until after the general election next year, has been examining an American HE model, known as the two-plus-two system, in which students can study for two years at community college and a further two years at university.

Applied to the UK system, that would see students beginning their HE courses in FE colleges close to home, before moving elsewhere if they chose to study for a full degree.

In the light of the expansion of sub-degree qualifications, the funding council calls for a clearer recognition of their importance. They should be clearly categorised as a discrete area of higher education under the heading of "advanced further education", as opposed to "degree-level education", it says.

However, the FEFC calls for an end to the demarcation of HE provision by type of institution or by sector, since it argues that HE should be recognised "as a spectrum of qualification aims which may be followed by students in many types of institutions".

Descriptions of FE or HE students are also outdated if individuals are being encouraged to study throughout their lives, it says.

The council's paper suggests colleges will become more popular as locations for HE provision if the trend towards students - particularly adult learners - studying close to home continues, as predicted.

To underpin the new emphasis on regional provision, the FEFC suggests that the concept of "adequacy and sufficiency", which is the key responsibility for the funding council on FE provision, should be extended to HE.

It acknowledges that collaboration between FE colleges and HE institutions will be necessary to ensure choice and diversity and to avoid excessive duplication, but says such partnerships should be adapted to local circumstances. The paper makes no reference to college-university mergers such as the one proposed by Derby University and two nearby colleges. However, it does raise some concerns over plans in some areas to establish "university colleges" without collaboration with neighbouring FE colleges.

The FEFC calls for a national system of credit accumulation and transfer which would allow students to progress easily between courses and institutions. It also wants all sub-degree higher education to be subject to a common quality assurance framework.

A review of student support - currently mandatory only for those following full-time HE courses - is needed, it adds. The present arrangements are "unsuitable for a system in which large numbers of students study part time and in which individuals need access to both further and higher education qualifications throughout their lives".

The FEFC's paper points out that HE provision costs less in FE colleges than in HE institutions. However, it makes no claim for colleges to have the right to muscle in on the HE's sector's research role.

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