Making higher education courses available to more people through franchise arrangements between colleges and universities has been a major feature of developing access in Wales in recent years.
The Dearing Report recognised the significant role this practice has played in expanding part-time sub-degree vocational courses. This "in turn it has fostered fruitful relationships between higher education institutions and further education colleges, which form the basis for initiatives designed to increase access to HE and bring it closer to the workplace".
Growth in franchising in Wales has been fostered since the late 1980s, initially by the Wales Advisory Body (WAB) which had funding responsibility for those higher education institutions in Wales previously funded by local authorities. This policy has been continued by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, most notably by funding substantially more part-time franchise arrangements.
Franchising has brought higher education within the grasp of people in the more sparsely populated rural areas of Wales as well as those in urban areas who might at first be daunted by attending a larger, unfamiliar institution. End-of-year figures for 199697 show that there were 4,325 undergraduate enrolments on franchise courses, 3,145 part-time and 1,180 full-time.
Franchised courses have also enabled their providers to exploit the fact that further education colleges are closely attuned to the education and skills needs of local employers.
Under franchise arrangements, funding is made available to the higher education "franchisor" institution which then supports the course at the "franchisee" FE college.
Dearing proposed that funding should be allocated directly to FE colleges. However, the effectiveness of the franchise system in Wales led to a specific statement in the report that it was not intended that the recommendation on direct funding "should prevent the continuation of this pattern of (franchised) higher education within further education colleges in Wales".
The funding council has welcomed this endorsement of Welsh achievements and the mandate it gives to reinforce them.
The Welsh approach is, in any case, very close to the spirit of Dearing. While there are some full-time and degree courses run under franchise, the majority are part-time and sub-degree courses (2,964 enrolments in 199697).
The council recognises that, in terms of meeting the needs of employers, particularly at local level, it is at the vocational HND and HNC level that the gap exists and that a concerted effort by institutions, funding council and government is needed to address this situation.
One of the concerns expressed in Dearing is about the quality of franchised courses, a concern which led to a recommendation that, ideally, an FE institution should have only one franchise partner. There are, as in England, instances where institutions have more than one franchise partner, although these do not normally run to a multiplicity. Indeed, the bulk of franchised courses in Wales are run by two institutions, the University of Glamorgan and University of Wales College, Newport.
The council has always stressed that higher education institutions are responsible for the quality of their franchised courses, and that they must make enough cash available to the FE colleges to ensure this. The council set out in 1994 the criteria which HE institutions are expected to adhere to in developing franchise links with colleges. Key among these is that franchised courses should be based on and enhance existing strengths and not in any way damage the core further education mission of the colleges.
The close co-operation between the Further and Higher Education Funding Councils through the joint Welsh Funding Councils' Executive has helped to ensure that franchising develops to the benefit of both sectors in Wales. The quality assessments which the council has run have not identified any unsatisfactory franchised courses. In fact, the business and management courses franchised by the University of Glamorgan have been deemed to be excellent in three out of the four assessments undertaken.
The HEFCW also appreciates that there is scope, side by side with franchising, for direct funding of higher education courses in colleges, provided that this is strategically driven. Following extensive consultation with both the sectors towards the end of 1996, the council is launching an initiative for the development of higher education courses in colleges "of direct relevance to the identified needs of employers in the region and which have a clear vocational focus".
The council expects to allocate nearly Pounds 110,000 to six further education colleges in 199798 to develop 11 courses, predominately at HND level. From 199899 onwards, money will be allocated for funded places or credits on these courses. A compact with a higher education institution is an integral element in the arrangements for developing and delivering these courses to ensure quality standards and access to appropriate expertise and support.
Alison Allan is clerk to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales