A TESLancaster University survey probed the public's views on the sector's performance. Ian Nash reports its findings
ROLE OF FE
Public esteem for further education in Scotland appears to be in sharp decline as the colleges increasingly try to emulate the universities.
People interviewed for The TES\ Lancaster University focus groups said the colleges were fast losing their purpose, which should be to offer lifelong experience to retirement with regular opportunities to retrain and reskill.
A successful 29-year-old financial adviser summed up the feelings of one group. "They're so desperate now to have all these degree courses, they seem to be trying to get away from what they used to do and become a stepping stone into higher education."
Part of the problem is seen as the low levels of funding available to colleges compared with universities. This was regularly interpreted by the groups throughout the UK as being due to the Government's favouring of higher education.
Public perception of the Government's priorities is very different to what ministers repeatedly espouse. A 36-year-old civil servant from the home counties, said: "I've always felt that colleges of further education have been the poor relation in England."
The problems were found throughout the UK but most sharply defined in Scotland, where links between FE and HE are closest. Here too, problems of funding and the effects on courses were most strongly attacked.
Class overcrowding was described as very common because of greater pressures to generate income since incorporation. The closing of the gap between FE and HE appears to have created confusion rather than clarification. Where boundaries between FE and HE blur, low achievers and the least well-off mature students lose out. This point was stressed strongly by Welsh and Scottish focus groups.
There was also scepticism over the way courses are assessed and credited. Credit accumulation and transfer - where people can gain credits and "build" qualifications to suit their needs at their own pace - were not viewed positively by employers.
The financial adviser, commenting on a credit gained by one of the members of her focus group, said: "You'll probably get another one in cake decorating and be able to go on and get a welder's degree."