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Studying comes easier on your own patch

Current thinking on the future of further and higher education in Scotland is that the two sectors should be working much more closely with each other. An example of this is to be found in the area of qualifications, where there is a "blurring" of the division between academic and vocational qualifications with the development of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF).

Indeed, the final report on lifelong learning by the enterprise and lifelong learning committee in the last Scottish Parliament (2002) recommends that "the articulation of qualifications between FE and HE needs to be improved". In addition, the same report states that "there should be a joint review of HE-FE estates to promote better use of existing resources across sectors".

It is easy, therefore, to be seduced by the possibility of further education and higher education coming together on one campus to offer a broad range of provision from non-advanced level courses to masters and PhD programmes, and to drive down costs and create efficiencies by sharing support services.

This concept is especially attractive in a rural setting such as the Borders where the indigenous population does not have access to a significant range of university education on its doorstep. This means that those wishing to pursue the "holy grail" of a university qualification either have to spend a considerable time each day travelling to and from their chosen seat of learning or, alternatively, have to live away from home during term time at least.

Inevitably, this situation significantly increases the cost to those people who live in a rural area. In particular, adult returners and those in employment who may wish to study part-time can justifiably feel disenfranchised.

It is against this background that Borders College began the formulation of its business case for a reconfigured estate. As part of this process, a report by independent consultants highlighted that the most appropriate model for the new estate was a "hub" located in Galashiels, together with a number of outreach centres in other Borders towns where there was an identified sustainable demand and with a community college in Hawick.

Current thinking advocates "strategic change through deeper collaboration or merger" between FE colleges and between FE colleges and higher education institutions.

Encouraged by the funding council, we got together with our colleagues from Heriot-Watt University, with whom we have been working closely over the past five years or so, to consider the option of a co-location to the university's Netherdale campus in Galashiels, which would become the "hub" for the delivery of FE and HE provision in the Borders with both organisations occupying the same buildings.

It was at this stage that the enormity of the proposal really became apparent. While colleges and HE institutes are part of the same Scottish education system, there are many cultural, strategic and operational differences between the sectors.

To bring two substantially different staff and student groups together on one campus presents real challenges. For instance, any change can be regarded as threatening and can be demotivating. When this change of necessity requires the existing staff and student bodies on the campus to relocate to accommodate another organisation, the situation is even more daunting.

These challenges are not insurmountable with goodwill on each side and there is huge commitment to ensure that this highly innovative project succeeds. We recognise that there are certain risks to be managed but also very great rewards to be gained in this project.

It must succeed for the future sustainability of FE and HE in the Borders, and to ensure that, with future additional university partners and the continued encouragement of our funders, the people of the Borders will have the opportunity to access on their own "patch" a much enhanced HE provision.

I will keep you informed.

Dr Robert Murray is principal of Borders College.

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