Editor's comment: Colleges should beware the allure of degree status

4th September 2009 at 01:00
The real goal for FE providers should be greater control of their own finances

The Bachelor of Vocational Studies (page 1) was always totemic, a rallying point for further education colleges eager to proclaim their maturity and independence from universities. It might have paved the way for the recreation of a much-missed polytechnic sector, according to David Collins, whose vision for a National Skills University accrediting the degrees aped the former Council for National Academic Awards which validated polytechnic qualifications.

A BVS promised a new era for colleges to compete with universities as degree-awarding institutions. It also raised the prospect that vocational education might finally achieve parity of esteem with academic education. The decision by the Association of Colleges to abandon plans for a BVS might therefore seem like a mistake. Not so. Colleges know that the real prize is a greater control over funding for the vast numbers of HE courses delivered in colleges.

It remains an absurdity and an insult to colleges to have the funding for foundation degrees channelled through partner universities and then redistributed, minus the usual top slice, like so much pocket money. There may once have been concerns that colleges were not up to the job of managing higher education provision, but these no longer apply to today's professional and businesslike providers. To have universities dictate foundation degree student numbers makes a mockery of college business planning. Colleges are already suffering as university budgets are squeezed.

As for a BVS helping to create greater parity of esteem between vocational and academic education, the best that can be said is that pursuit of this goal appears as pointless as the quest for the Holy Grail. The point is surely that vocational and academic are descriptors on an educational spectrum and equally estimable in their own right.

Colleges do not need a totemic BVS. They are already potent providers of higher education that are, in many cases, prefered by students who value the local nature of colleges, excellent levels of support, and the fact that two-year foundation degrees are cheaper than full-blown honours courses. Colleges do not have to go head to head with universities for degree awarding powers; this contest would not serve either colleges or universities well, particularly in these straitened times. Notably, the Conservatives are opposed to any extension of degree-awarding powers.

A BVS also threatened to cause mission drift among further education providers. The polytechnics, which had degrees awarded by the CNAA, became universities in 1992 and, in many instances, abandoned significant chunks of their former vocational missions in order to become more like traditional universities. The result was a vacuum in the UK's educational structure.

But in recent years the territory vacated by the polys has been colonised successfully by colleges providing high quality, employer-focused education. They are, in all but name, already the new polytechnics. It would be a pity if, as colleges filled the educational gap left by the polytechnics, they were lured by the prospect of degree-awarding powers to consider pursuing university status.

The vocational bachelors degree may yet have its day, but in the meantime colleges are right to focus on getting a fair and transparent deal for the higher education work they do already.

Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus, Email: alan.thomson@tes.co.uk.


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