Franchising HE courses has brought students from all over the world to Isle of Wight College, as Neil Merrick discovers. The Isle of Wight may be surrounded by water, but, thanks to franchising, it is no longer cut off from the mainland of higher education.
When Bryan Marriott, principal of Isle of Wight College, first asked higher education institutions on the south coast to consider setting up franchised courses, he had the interests of the island in mind.
The college was the only further education provider on the Isle of Wight and there were no HE facilities. "It's difficult for some people to leave the island," he said. "It was important that our industry had direct access to HE students. People who leave the island to go to university tend to stay away."
Yet four years after the college set up its first franchised HND course through Bournemouth Polytechnic (now Bournemouth University), 60 per cent of the college's HE students come from the mainland or even farther afield. This year the college is running five HND or diploma courses, all franchised through Bournemouth, with a total of 220 students.
The prevalence of non-islanders means that students who have spent all their lives on the Isle of Wight have the opportunity to meet students from other parts of the country.
"That's part of the HE experience," said Carl Groves, the college's director of higher education. "But there are still a substantial number of places for local people."
Students are attracted to the Isle of Wight by its tranquil rural image, the cheap out-of-season accommodation and a relatively low crime-rate. Only 8 per cent of students fail to complete HE courses, just half the number who drop-out of degree courses run at Bournemouth University.
Among the courses offered by the college are HNDs in business and in tourism and business, neither of which are provided at the university's main campus. Bournemouth, meanwhile, offers three-year degree courses in the same subjects.
It is possible for students to take a two-year HND course at Isle of Wight College and then gain a degree by moving to Bournemouth, or another university, for a final year. "We are not in competition for the same students. That's why the programme works so well," said Mr Groves.
The college, he added, was more vocationally slanted than most HE institutions. "All our staff have vocational experience outside teaching. Clearly that has advantages from the university's point of view."
Five former university lecturers were recruited to teach HE courses but are also required to teach FE. Just as the college's vocational expertise has helped with HE provision, the presence of the franchised courses has assisted with the development of A-levels and General National Vocational Qualifications. "There is more academic rigour in the college," said Bryan Marriott. "But we don't want to encourage elitism."
Students taking HND and diploma courses are impressed by the personal attention they receive from college lecturers. "You get extra attention which you wouldn't get on a large campus," said Kirsty Grant, a student from Zimbabwe who is taking an HND in tourism and business.
Ms Grant, who enrolled for the course while she was abroad, said she had not realised that she would be studying on the Isle of Wight until she arrived in Britain and had believed she would be based at Bournemouth. "I'm quite happy but I would like to take a top-up degree at the university," she said. Other students, in particular those from abroad, also appear to have faced confusion over where they would be based.
Some students are happy to remain on the island after leaving school. Lucy Charlo, who is also studying for the HND in tourism and business, has a weekend job with a local ferry operator. "I'm quite at home here and I am able to combine work and study," she said.
Clinton Basford enrolled for an HND course in business and finance after completing a two-year BTEC national diploma at the college. He thought that its computer facilities were better than those at Bournemouth.
Although most of the college's 1,250 students are taking FE courses, they are encouraged to mix with the HE students. There is a joint common-room and, once licensing laws are relaxed, the college may grant the wishes of HE students and provide a bar. "We don't want two cultures emerging across the college, " said Carl Groves.
In addition to the students taking franchised HE courses, Isle of Wight has about 100 students on part-time HNC courses which are funded by the Further Education Funding Council. When FEFC inspectors visited the college in January, they did not report on the HND and diploma courses. However, the HE courses at Isle of Wight have been inspected by both Bournemouth University and by BTEC, which licenses the university to run HND courses.
Mr Groves was worried that in future, HE courses might be concentrated in just a small group of FE colleges. Although the college only franchises courses through Bournemouth, it has approached other universities to try and expand the number of HE courses it offers. In the long run, Isle of Wight would like to become an HE institution in its own right.
Franchising has allowed the college to become part of the "university culture" and to expand the education it offers. Yet is was only effective, added Mr Groves, because of the nature of the relationship between the college and Bournemouth University.
"We feel that we have a long-term relationship with Bournemouth and that is something to benefit both institutions."