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2nd December 1994 at 00:00
Peter Wilson reports on the growth of open college networks.

A snapshot of college strategic plans for the current year reveals that most are now using, or plan to use, the accreditation services of their local open college network (OCN).

Open colleges were set up to provide a range of services such as distance learning and access to advanced learning for students for whom formal studies were not appropriate. They became particularly successful in designing and accrediting short courses which could count towards a nationally-recognised qualification.

Although access to this service remains problematic in some areas, there are 29 OCNs now linked through the National Open College Network (NOCN) which ensures that standards are consistent across the country. The network aims to have an operational or developing OCN in every part of England, Wales and Northern Ireland by the end of 1995.

Although OCNs have been around for some 15 years, and NOCN itself was established in 1987, the growth of open college networks over the past two years has been explosive. And although they offer accreditation to a comprehensive range of providers, it is the growth in demand from the FE sector that has contributed most to this explosion.

The figures from NOCN's most recent annual review reveal the scope and pace of this growth. For example: * From 1979 to July 1993 an estimated 250,000 learners registered on OCN-accredited programmes.

* From August 1993 to July 1994 a further 95,000 registrations were recorded, and estimates for the current year point towards 125,000 registrations.

* In 1993-94 over 350,000 OCN credits were awarded to students.

* In 1994-95 OCNs estimate that this figure will approach 500,000.

These figures are based on reports and estimates from current OCNs. The pace of growth will continue to accelerate dramatically in future when more networks are developed to complete this national picture.

All OCNs operate their accreditation service within the specifications of the National Credit Framework. This means that credits are awarded to nationally agreed standards across four levels of achievement within the framework. So, although OCNs are local organisations, the fact that they operate within a common national framework means that any credit awarded by one network is recognised by and can be transferred to any other.

The National Credit Framework also enables straightforward comparisons to be made between OCN credits and other awards and qualifications. It is this combination of a locally responsive system, operating within a national framework and able to offer accreditation to any kind of learning achievement in the sector, that explains why FE colleges have begun to make such widespread use of OCNs since incorporation.

As FE colleges plan to meet growth targets in the current three-year phase of expansion, 70 per cent of this growth (says the FEFC on the basis of College Strategic Plans) will come from part-time provision, and 65 per cent of the growth in student numbers will be adult returners. These are the key areas for OCN accreditation.

One area of growth for OCNs continues to be in access to higher education programmes. Indeed, almost all access programmes are now accredited by OCNs. An estimated 50,000 learners in the UK are currently on access to HE programmes (figures from the Higher Education Quality Council) and the scale of provision now contributes to the increasing variety of routes into higher education.

Open College Networks also accredit programmes for basic education students, for those with special needs and learning difficulties, and for thousands of other learners in the FE sector for whom traditional qualifications are either inaccessible or inappropriate.

Indeed, as Education Minister Tim Boswell remarked in a recent speech congratulating OCNs on their work, members of NOCN also offer a range of accredited programmes approved by the Secretary of State for Education as vocational qualifications.

From their marginal beginnings, OCNs are moving into the mainstream of the new FE sector.

As the sector grows and becomes more diverse, the need for a flexible, locally responsive system of accreditation will become increasingly important for colleges. Although OCNs will continue to offer a service that complements the more well-known qualifications offered by academic and vocational awarding bodies, the rate of growth of OCNs and the recent explosion in demand for accreditation from the FE sector suggests that OCNs will become increasingly important actors within the flexible, diverse, credit-based culture that continues to unfold in colleges across the UK.

* Peter Wilson is directorof the National OpenCollege Network

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