The first bid by a college for full degree-awarding powers has been rejected, forcing the largest provider of degree-level courses in FE to sign a new partnership with a university to avoid scrapping its HE provision.
After a four-year approval process involving the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), Bradford College was expecting to take the historic step for FE colleges this year. Instead, the Privy Council declined its application on the QAA's recommendation.
So far, only two colleges have won the right to award their own foundation degrees and none has been approved to award bachelor's degrees or postgraduate qualifications. But Bradford's own experience shows how risky that position can be: its current awarding institution, Leeds Metropolitan University, has cancelled all its partnerships with colleges except for foundation degrees.
Without the expected approval from the Privy Council, the college was forced last week to sign a new agreement with Teesside University.
Bradford's principal Michele Sutton said the QAA had recommended that the college should do more work on its pedagogic effectiveness and scholarly activity, one of the four criteria on which institutions are judged. She added that a report from QAA inspectors who visited the college over a period of 15 months had in her view been favourable on all counts.
The college intends to reapply at the next available opportunity in June 2013. "We are very, very proud of our HE offer. It's excellent and extensive and we believe we will get taught degree-awarding powers in the near future," Ms Sutton said.
The focus on scholarly activity suggests that other colleges might struggle in a system designed for universities with research funding. Ms Sutton said there were no benchmarks against which scholarly activity in colleges could be compared to that in universities. "We do quite a lot of research and the majority of staff are involved in what we consider scholarly activity: keeping on top of their subject disciplines," she said.
As the first applicant from an FE college, Ms Sutton said she had expected a tough process. But she argued that she still had faith in ministers' claims that they wanted a wider variety of HE providers and said Bradford was well equipped to provide that.
"What the ministers want is diversification of the sector. There are private providers applying. This will test the process," she said. "If you look at the new rules for the `university' title, there are places with only 1,000 students that can apply. Bradford College is four times as big as that. My view is that we will continue on our journey and we will get taught degree-awarding powers when the time comes."
Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group of large FE colleges, said that although she believed ministers still wanted to support HE in FE, promises to revise the application process for degree-awarding powers had not yet been fulfilled. "We've been told that it will be made much more straightforward and easy to apply," she said. "Most colleges would say that has not been their experience. It's not about reducing their standards in any way, but making it more sensible for colleges going through it."
Since the higher education White Paper in June last year offered colleges encouragement by arguing for "greater diversity of provision", they have suffered a backlash from those looking to protect traditional HE.
The success of colleges in bidding for more than half of 20,000 lower-cost HE places under the "core and margin" system unnerved universities. David Willetts, the universities and science minister, was also concerned that a rapidly expanding college sector would recreate the former "binary system" of universities and polytechnics. As a result, the next round of allocations for lower-cost places was just 5,000.
A report in the summer, Understanding Higher Education in Further Education Colleges, provided ammunition for both sides: those wanting to expand HE in FE and those wanting to keep it in check.
It found that colleges were better at widening participation, were more cost-effective and that they offered slightly more teaching time.
But it questioned whether students in colleges had made an informed choice. "Most had no, or very limited, experience of universities, and they were largely unaware or indifferent to what they could offer," it said.
One in 10 students surveyed did not realise that they were not studying at a university.
Full degree-awarding powers for colleges could resolve that problem by eliminating the confusion of receiving a university qualification from within a college. But for now, they will have to wait.
HE IN FE FACTS
1 in 12 or approximately 170,000 HE students are based in a college
257 colleges provide undergraduate- and postgraduate-level courses
70% of colleges providing HE rely on a university for funding
20% of HE students in colleges come from low-participation areas, compared with 11 per cent in universities.
Photo credit: Alamy
Original headline: College's bid for full degree-awarding powers is rejected