A college has recruited three staff into higher education teaching and research roles, in an unprecedented move that further blurs the boundaries between universities and colleges offering HE.
Furness College in Cumbria has recently recruited three staff for its engineering department, who will spend a quarter of their time on research. The programme is intended to bolster the reputation of the engineering department, which has about 300 students, and to build on existing research endeavours.
So far, the college has developed research into renewable energy, since the area is home to the world's largest wind farm, and landmine detection, after a lecturer became involved with Sir Bobby Charlton's anti-landmine charity, Find A Better Way.
But until now it has carried out that work mainly as part of students' assignments, such as an award-winning project devising a system to detect plastic landmines.
This is the first time that University and College Union (UCU) officials are aware of that an FE college has recruited staff with an explicit research brief. But opinions are divided among lecturers who teach HE in FE about whether research should be part of the job.
A motion passed at UCU's congress this year called for research to be built into the contracts of all HE teachers, including those in colleges, preventing colleges from undermining university contracts with cheaper competition. However, several delegates said that college HE lecturers choose that setting precisely because they like the ethos of FE, such as greater contact time with students and a more practical focus.
Mark Nicholson, deputy principal for curriculum and quality at Furness College, said he believed that there was no conflict between an FE ethos and the research that his college was proposing. "The concept is small R and large D," he said. "We want to invest in large amounts of development work but leave the blue sky research to universities."
He said they envisaged working to provide practical applications of research for local industry, which ranges from aerospace to nuclear power to renewable energy. From next year, the college also hopes to offer a taught master's programme, working with the University of Cumbria.
Cumbria has proved a particularly fertile location for HE in FE, since for many years it was the largest area lacking a university. The University of Cumbria opened in 2007, with the aim of providing a "distributed learning network" making use of sites across the county, including FE colleges, to provide access to HE even in remote areas.
The staff at Furness, who include two lecturers promoted to the new roles and one person who recently completed a PhD, will be paid at a level above the FE pay scale and earn between #163;36,000 and #163;39,000. For that, they will teach 540 hours a year, in line with lecturers at the post-1992 universities. However, they will also be expected to spend 180 hours in research; a university lecturer would see their teaching time reduced to accommodate this, UCU said.
"We're not against this," said Iain Owens, regional officer for UCU in the North West. "It's definitely an interesting development and potentially it could work well."
But he said the union was concerned that staff would need the right support and infrastructure staff for research, such as libraries and advice from other experts, which might not be available in college.
"A 120-mile round trip to go to the library is a bit difficult," Mr Owens said, referring to the distance to the nearest university.
He said that #163;36,000 was generous for a starting HE lecturer, but most would expect to progress beyond #163;39,000, and the Furness roles appeared to have a higher workload than most university lecturers.
DOING THE RESEARCH
National contract at post-1992 universities:
- No more than 18 hours a week or 550 hours a year teaching.
- Remainder of time spent in self-directed research.
- Salary of between about #163;31,000 and #163;45,000.
Research contract at Furness College:
- 16 hours a week or 540 hours a year teaching.
- Research for 180 hours a year.
- Salary of between #163;36,000 and #163;39,000.