The future has to be tertiary

7th May 2004 at 01:00
The fevered response from the universities to the somewhat modest proposals for merging the further and higher education funding councils (FE Focus, page four) highlights the rather protected environment in which they have been working. Universities Scotland fears that other learning providers could step into the tertiary education scene - "possibly private companies", horror of horrors. The universities clearly need to link up with the further education sector to learn how to compete with private companies operating in their market-place.

Scottish universities can be forgiven for having fevered brows, of course.

They are rightly concerned about the uncertain impact surrounding the introduction of top-up tuition fees south of the border. Now they fear a tertiary education sector may lead to a "harming of quality and standards", split the HE sector into old and new universities, pit universities and colleges against each other - and, heaven forfend, hand power to the politicians.

What planet are these people living on? Are the universities so worried about external scrutiny, competition and intrusion that they fear for their hallowed existences? Their concerns have been around before. Were we not issued with dire warnings in similar terms when the universities were "repatriated" just before devolution? Standards were supposed to have come under pressure, resources would be hived off elsewhere and the colleges would take over. Those with even longer memories will recall the siren voices who cautioned that the arrival of the rough diamonds from the polytechnics would cause incalculable damage.

Surely the truth is that, as the universities themselves frequently boast, we have a diversity of further and higher education - designated differently, regarded differently, funded differently. That is the case now and is likely to remain the case. A tertiary education sector will introduce new funding and other devices. This is long overdue: the inconsistencies and irrationalities affecting students and courses in FE and HE cannot be sustained. A fresh start is to be welcomed rather than feared.

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