FE has proved its right to offer bachelor degrees

13th February 2009 at 00:00

The fact that further education providers can successfully deliver higher education courses should come as no surprise. After all, they have been doing so for decades.

What is surprising, perhaps, is that both the quantity and quality of the higher education work they are doing is rising (see pages 4-5). And what is, frankly, astonishing is that colleges are doing so with fewer resources than universities while also delivering everything from basic education to advanced training and skills.

The sector's success in increasing the pool of students entering higher education is no less impressive. Many of them would never have made it into higher education, let alone thrive at that level, without the support and guidance offered by FE colleges, as Pat Bacon argues opposite.

This is the business end of widening participation, where raw material - and some young people can be pretty raw - goes in one end, and out the other come students with the knowledge and aspiration to succeed. By the time universities take up the widening participation baton, much of the hard work has been done.

A common thread in the sector's higher education success story, whether preparing students for university or delivering HE courses directly, is the staff. From managers to those at the chalkface, FE colleges offer a level of support to students that schools find hard to match and that many universities positively eschew.

The chance for further education providers to award their own foundation degrees, independently of universities, is recognition of the sector's success in delivering higher education.

And, given that the latest National Student Survey shows that the majority of HE students in further education are satisfied with the quality of their courses, it is hard to defend continued university hegemony in this area.

So, if further education providers are to be trusted with the delivery of foundation degrees, then why not allow them to offer vocational bachelor degrees awarded by a national body, as proposed by the Association of Colleges?

Many in HE are alarmed by this idea. A degree is, after all, a prestigious and lucrative brand and universities the preferred retail outlets. Just imagine if one day we are able to buy our Levi's jeans and Nike trainers from a supermarket.

Of course protectionism, as shown by the Boston Tea Party and the United States's doomed stand against Japanese cars and technology, has a nasty habit of backfiring.

More than this though, if, as the evidence suggests, further education has a unique and potent ability to catalyse change through teaching, then we owe it to ourselves as a society to give the sector the freedoms and opportunities it has earned.

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