Credit where credit is due
FE is often seen as more homogeneous throughout the country than the school system, the same from Lerwick to Land's End. But Janet Lowe, the principal of Lauder College in Dumfermline and a member of the Garrick committee which is Dearing's Scottish arm, says there are key differences between England and Scotland. "Whether they are strengths or weaknesses is another matter, " she said.
Sir Ron Garrick, the chief executive of Weir Pumps who chairs the Scottish group, said: "There have been nothing but good noises coming to us about the significant contribution FE makes to higher education, which is more substantial than I realised at the start of our inquiry.
"There is no doubt that FE has played a major part in the greater participati on rate in HE that Scotland enjoys compared with England." (The Scottish figure of 43 per cent is 10 per cent higher than the overall UK figure).
Ms Lowe points to the amount of HE that takes place in FE colleges, which accounted for 27 per cent of all HE students at the last count, compared with 13 per cent in England. FE has "grown the business" to the point where the Scottish colleges, remarkably, now have more students on part-time HE courses than the universities - 24,216 out of a total of 44, 764 part-timers (1994-95 figures). The part-timers are mostly undergraduates, not postgraduates as in the universities.
FE colleges bristle at any suggestion they exist to act as a feeder service to universities, but the fact remains that 40 per cent of Scots students taking up a full-time undergraduate place start out in FE.
This partly reflects the trend to establish articulation between degrees and higher national diploma and certificate courses, which, in turn, reflects the closer collaboration between FE and HE in Scotland, Ms Lowe observes.
"You are more likely to find HE institutions talking to their local colleges in Scotland about arrangements for students to progress, so it's not an entirely open market," Ms Lowe said.
Lauder is itself talking to Napier, Heriot Watt and Abertay universities on "enabling" agreements between different study programmes. This would give the college favoured status but "agreements would not be exclusive on either side because we don't want to restrict choice and opportunity for students", the principal said.
Ms Lowe believes that the greater proportion of HE students in colleges north of the border is a strength of the Scottish FE system, and that FE adds value to HE.
Lauder carried out research to discover why the 25 per cent of its students who are on advanced courses opted for college rather than university.
"We found a significant proportion came to college because it was local and the students wanted to live at home," said Ms Lowe.
"But there was also an issue of self-esteem and self-perception, in that these students felt the college would provide them with a more supported learning environment while they feared universities might be more intimidating.
"There was nothing wrong with them academically. They just felt university was beyond them. These were perceptions from students from lower ability groups and lower socio-economic backgrounds. But 50 per cent of our HNCD students go on to do degrees, which is not untypical, and most of the remaining 50 per cent get jobs. So these are very positive outcomes.
"FE is, therefore, playing a significant role in providing a different form of HE for different groups of people. We are not dealing with 18-year-olds clutching five Highers."
Joyce Johnston, principal of Fife College, which has developed close links with the University of Abertay Dundee and has its own ambitions to become the University of Fife, wants the Dearing committee to endorse the routes from HNCD into degrees.
Any recognition of the wide-ranging service that FE provides for very different types of student will be particularly welcome if it carries cash prizes, Ms Johnston hopes.
Figures compiled by the Association of Scottish Colleges reveal that FE loses out heavily in the funding of full-time HE places in the colleges compared with students in universities.
The universiti es receive a government grant of #163;5,251 for every science and computing student against #163;2,683 for a full-time HE student in college. The equivalent figures for engineering and technology students are #163;5,592 and #163;3,461.
Sir Ron Garrick acknowledges that FE comes off worst in the funding allocations but said, "We don't really know enough about the relative costs of provision in the two sectors, which often comes down to individual institutions and the way they are managed."
Sir Ron Dearing will be expected to address these differences, as well as the funding structure itself, when his report is issued in the summer.
Ms Lowe's membership of the Garrick committee prevents her from expressing any preference for an FE funding council, some other variant or the status quo. "I hope the committee will canvass options widely before reaching a decision," she said.
The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has thrown its weight behind a single council for the tertiary sector to create "an integrated approach to funding and quality assurance for all higher and further education institutions".
The trick will be to develop a flexible system that will not erect barriers to student progress but will preserve the distinctiveness of FE. The SHEFC says "safeguards" could be built in but does not spell out how.
The irony may be that the developing links between FE and HE, which are generally welcomed, could reinforce the problem Ms Lowe identifies throughout the UK of an "underdeveloped understanding" of the role of FE colleges.
The Educational Institute of Scotland, in its evidence to the Dearing committee, shares this concern and warns against "fudging" the difference between the two sectors.