Academic and funding divisions between colleges and universities are likely to be challenged by an elected Scottish parliament and "cherished traditions" are likely to receive far shorter shrift, Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Moray House Institute, advised a conference in Inverness two weeks ago.
Professor Paterson, addressing the Scottish Trades Union Congress and Association of University Teachers' conference on the parliament and higher education, praised the further education sector for extending access and attracting non-traditional entrants and called for an extension to its role.
Colleges, with 30 per cent of higher education undergraduates, were much better than universities at recruiting working-class students and in engaging the socially excluded and were contributing to the greater levels of democracy the parliament would build on.
In an accompanying paper, Professor Paterson argues: "If FE colleges are indeed better at widening access than universities, then should they not be encouraged to be more ambitious in expanding their higher education courses than is currently allowed? The fact that the University of the Highlands and Islands is to be based on the existing FE colleges is a pointer here" Professor Paterson predicted a parliament would be unlikely to tolerate a continuing split in the funding of FE and HE and would at least want to take the advice of the Garrick committee and establish two separate funding councils within the same organisation.
Brian Duffield, chief executive of the UHI project, found it strange Garrick was proposing to continue the divide between FE and HE, confining colleges to sub-degree work. "Such proposals seem both illogical and likely to generate a form of academic apartheid which would be counter to the thrust of the analyses presented," Professor Duffield said.
Peter Scott, vice-chancellor-elect of Kingston University and former editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement, was surprised so little progress had been made in integrating further and higher education. It was inevitable they would come together.
Angela Roger, vice-president of AUT (Scotland), pressed for separate funding and planning arrangements but with close relationships. Sir Stewart Sutherland, principal of Edinburgh University, defended the different roles of FE and HE and Garrick plans to separate funding councils. "I think good neighbours require good fences. There is a great danger higher education will divert FE from some of the things it does exceptionally well and which we cannot do. That is the point of having two funding streams," he said.
Professor Scott replied that he was a "one funding council per-son" and expressed anxiety about fences people had to jump and the academic programmes involved. "From the point of view of the student, why should we impose an artificial administrative category?" he asked.
Shamin Akhtar, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, said the sectoral divide could not be justified in educational terms while Linda Wheeler, vice president of the Educational Institute of Scotland's College Lecturers' Association, said FE's role in the seamless robe of post-16 provision had yet to be fully recognised. "Our contribution to higher education leaves us financially penalised," she stated.
John Arbuthnott, principal of Strathclyde University and a member of the Garrick Committee, advised both interest groups to avoid confrontation. "Let's be cautious about generating too much of a battle," he warned.