Research at Barnsley College challenges the myth that FE offers second-rate degrees to students who are only there after missing the grade at school. It also raises a string of questions about the additional support the Government must give if its plans for a two-year foundation degree are to succeed.
Helen Bellamy, head of higher education at Barnsley, did two studies on student intake and how they fared, comparing the college's success with national data on degrees. They revealed that, despite Barnsley having more lower academic achievers and students from manual working class families, the overall performance was close to the national average.
In 1997, 83.8 per cent of students nationally gained first or second class degrees. The first available data from Barnsley a year later showed that 85.3 per cent achieved these classes. "We had far fewer firsts than nationally, but then we also had fewer third and unclassified degrees," she said.
While 11 per cent of students nationally were from social classes 4 and 5, the figure for Barnsley was 19 per cent. "Our achievements validate our admissions policy, that is to offer places to as many applicants as possible who can demonstrate commitment and enthusiasm."
Students are admitted on as little as 2 E grades at A-level, a great many have GNVQs, and mature students arrive without any formal qualifications.
Commitment and enthusiasm are the prerequisites. "Then, once we get them here, the emphasis is on quality teaching and learning, our small average group sizes, the individual and group tutorial support and the expectation of high attendance levels."
The concen among many people in FE is that an inherent elitism in the foundation degree plans will undermine these qualities while actually devaluing the degree at honours level.
Dick Evans, principal of Stockport College of Further and Higher Education, says the starting point for any new higher education expansion must be to look at what FE does best in this area.
Colleges serve niche markets, they complement rather than compete with universities, they are predominantly vocational and offer flexible modes of study and attendance, he says. "While offering progression to university, they also match the needs of the learner with future employer demands."
Cornwall College, for example, helpssmall to medium-sized companies upgrade staff qualifications. City College, Manchester, has an art and design advisory board senstive to the higher education needs in local industry. Northbrook College in Worthing, Sussex runs the strongly vocational BA in menswear design.
There is a clutter of past problems and hurdles on the path to improved higher education provision, says the Association of Colleges. "For example," a spokeswoman explained, "failure to provide an adequate system of student support for those at intermediate levels of study has contributed to the UK's relatively poor record of achievement at skilled craftsman or junior manager level."
Poorer levels of funding in FE compared with universities, the clash of quality-assurance systems operating in each sector and the inadequate levels of student financial support, all need redressing if the foundation degree - or any other initiative - is to succeed, she said.