FE to the rescue in higher education funding crisis

14th January 2011 at 00:00
As universities prepare to double or even triple tuition fees, a plan from publishing heavyweight Pearson to offer vocational degrees could put more colleges on the road to offering flexible and affordable higher education, writes David Rogers

At the end of last year it was Financial Times owner Pearson; this year expect others to follow suit.

London Stock Exchange-listed Pearson, whose business portfolio includes exam board Edexcel, already offers BTEC Higher National Certificates and Higher National Diplomas in vocational subjects studied in FE colleges over one or two years.

Now it is to enter uncharted territory with BTEC degrees.

Working in partnership with FE colleges, the subjects covered will be business, engineering, ICT, and health and social care. The initiative has been drawn up with the help of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), and it is clear it has the support of the Government.

With a higher education (HE) reform bill due to be introduced by the spring, universities minister David Willetts pretty much guaranteed similar initiatives in the future when he told an audience towards the end of last year: "BTECs that are equivalent to GCSEs and A-levels lead to higher earnings because employers respect them.

But students cannot currently study BTECs at a higher level. I am delighted that, after discussions with Pearson, this will now change. There will be a new rung on the ladder of opportunity. Students, employers and the economy all stand to benefit."

Business leaders want FE to reflect the need for higher level skills, BIS says, and companies want employees to have the right skills for employment.

"In the forthcoming white paper, we want to make it easier to award new high-quality and affordable degrees like BTECs," Mr Willetts adds. In other words, he wants to make it easier for organisations like Pearson to attain degree-awarding powers. Briefly, the power to award degrees is regulated by law and in order to award a recognised HE degree in the UK, an organisation needs to be authorised to do so either by royal charter or by an act of Parliament.

Having degree-awarding powers is something that appeals to Pearson, says UK president Rod Bristow. "We're very optimistic we'll get support on this," he says. "We've been having conversations with David Willetts and we've got a lot of support in principle.

"But there is a gap between principle and reality. We hope to have degree- awarding powers. If there is no change we won't be able to do what we plan as quickly or as affordably. We think the minister can see why this is such a good thing and that's why we are optimistic."

He is wary of appearing too optimistic but, nonetheless, it would be a big disappointment to Pearson if it was not awarded such powers, given Mr Willetts' own enthusiastic backing of its plans.

Colleges are broadly supportive of what Pearson plans to do, no doubt mindful of reduced budgets which will leave them having to raise fees, downsize or embrace the kind of innovative ideas that have seen an increasing number set up commercial ventures, from running restaurants to owning recruitment consultancies (FE Focus, December 17).

Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC), says: "We would be interested to explore further the proposals set out by Pearson. We are interested in proposals from Pearson or others that may help more colleges deliver more high-quality, affordable and flexible HE to more students."

According to the AoC, more than 260 colleges teach HE qualifications, most of which, at both foundation degree and honours level, need partners to validate their qualifications.

Close to 170,000 students are on HE courses at colleges and an AoC survey recently found that students on a three-year course are graduating with an average of around pound;17,500 less debt than their university counterparts.

"Pearson aren't the only ones looking at the higher education market," says Chris Morecroft, chairman of the AoC, adding that FE colleges, universities and other training providers are all interested.

Mr Morecroft says that for it to work, Pearson and others have got to find new markets. He thinks the target audience will be students from poorer backgrounds and older people who are already working.

"I think tuition fees will force a lot of students to think more carefully about debts," he says. "I honestly believe a lot will say that they don't want the debt. What hasn't been really talked about is when people get to their late 20s, they want a mortgage, have their first child and the amount of student debt could affect their ability to do this."

As a former principal of Worcester College of Technology, Mr Morecroft has some advice for Pearson. "We need more detail, but if I was Pearson I would be looking at higher technology skills and working with local businesses to find out exactly what they need."

Others have already beaten Pearson to the punch in offering vocational degrees, most notably fast-food chain McDonald's, which has recently teamed up with Manchester Metropolitan University for its custom-made foundation degree in managing business operations.

It means the company can offer qualifications ranging from basic skills to degree-level courses. As a result, it has produced a college-style prospectus to be distributed to careers advisers, which will present McDonald's training as a seamless part of the education system.

Its own Hamburger University, in the north London suburb of East Finchley, trains 17,500 students a year at a cost of pound;30 million.

It is this kind of tailor-made education that is proving increasingly attractive to employers, says Mr Bristow. He adds that both employers and students now want education that follows a different path to 30 years ago.

He says many are eschewing the traditional way of getting a degree - leave school, go to university, study for three years and get a job after graduation - in favour of studying alongside paid work.

Mr Bristow believes FE colleges now have the chance to make a real difference. "I think the time has come for FE colleges to occupy a much more central place in this country. People increasingly want their education in a flexible way."

He adds: "People might not be able to afford all that expense and we think there is an awful lot of growth for those who want to study and work part- time. Employers and students want an education that is ready for the real world."

And this, according to Mr Morecroft, can only be a good thing for colleges - and students.

"Like any business, colleges are looking to grow and develop," he says. "There are not enough students from poorer backgrounds or employed backgrounds. The Government gets an upskilled workforce and colleges get more students."



The first phase of Pearson's vocational degree programmes will be piloted from September this year. The publishing company says further qualifications are planned in law, nursing, education, and hospitality and tourism.

The firm has recruited Roxanne Stockwell from BPP, a private education and training provider in subject areas including law, tax and accountancy, who will join as managing director of Pearson's higher education awards business.

It should be a smart move - BPP University College of Professional Studies was granted degree-awarding powers by the Privy Council in 2007 and last year was awarded university college status.

Pearson UK president Rod Bristow admits Ms Stockwell's recruitment was at least in part to make sure Pearson follows suit. "Her experience and understanding of technicalities and complexities involved in degree- awarding status will be invaluable."

While it waits on a change in law, Pearson says it is talking to a number of HE institutions with degree-awarding powers, in order to develop its degree-level BTEC.

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