Give us the foundations of power too

29th June 2007 at 01:00
John Graystone is chief executive of fforwm, the organisation for Wales's 25 FE colleges

Sixth-formers with decisions to make about their post A-level, or equivalent, destinations will be interested in the Further Education and Training Bill that is progressing through the Westminster Parliament.

Clause 19, on foundation degrees (FDs), will have a profound impact on FE colleges - but curiously not in Wales. It is likely that FE colleges in England will be given the right to apply to the Privy Council for the power to award FDs.

To obtain this power, a college in England would have to reach a certain high-quality threshold and enrol sufficient numbers. This power has not been awarded to FE colleges in Wales, unless there is a change to the Bill in its latter stages.

FDs are the first higher education (HE) qualification to be developed for more than 25 years. Classed as an "intermediate degree", just below honours degrees and equating to Higher National Diplomas, they are designed to address a national skills shortfall by supplying graduates with intermediate skills levels.

A key feature is that employers' bodies are actively involved in the design of FD programmes and employers should be involved in their delivery. In England, there has been a major expansion of these degrees. There are presently 61,000 FD students in England with a target of 100,000 by 2010.

Significant extra funding of pound;32 million was made between 2003 and 2006 to help develop FDs and to increase awareness among employers and prospective students. In Wales, the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCW) announced development funding of pound;200,000 in 2001-2 but no additional student numbers have been funded.

A report commissioned by the HEFCW says that raising awareness of FDs has been seen as a low priority. There has been some growth. The 663 (1.7 per cent of all undergraduates) in 2003-4 had increased to 1,306 (3.2 per cent) in 2005-6. This increase, however, was more than matched by the decline in the number of students taking HNC and HND courses.

The Leitch report has highlighted the need to invest in higher-level skills. The Independent Review of the Mission and Purpose of FE, due to report in the autumn, is considering the role of FE in respect of the Leitch agenda.

fforwm is strongly supportive of the principle that FE colleges in Wales with sufficient numbers of HE learners, which reach the necessarily rigorous quality procedures, should have the power to award FDs. Estyn inspection reports show that FE colleges in Wales are consistently achieving high standards.

FDs are the natural apex of vocational qualifications for the sector. Many candidates have followed vocational routes. FE colleges with the capacity to develop FDs have a long and outstanding history of catering for employer needs.

It is not logical that colleges in Wales should be disadvantaged compared with those in England, which may in future be able to award FDs even if their quality profile is lower than that of colleges in Wales.

The issue is fundamentally one of principle for colleges in Wales. In practice, most would not wish to validate FDs. They are content with the excellent partnerships they currently have with HE institutions.

Collaboration between FE colleges and HE in Wales is highly valued. The potential new power should work to expand current provision, not threaten it.

All the major parties in Westminster have given a strong vote of confidence to FE colleges in England. Surely the Welsh MPs and AMs who support a "learning country" will wish to do the same for their own FE colleges and call for Clause 19 to be extended to Wales?

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