Ben Russell reports on mounting pressure for the barriers between further and higher education to be dismantled for the benefit of both
Sophisticated links between colleges and their university counterparts are being hailed as a model for the future of further and higher education.
With Sir Ron Dearing widely expected to recommend closer ties between further and higher education, university and college staff already involved in close collaboration called for barriers to links to be removed.
"We can offer students and employers the range from national vocational qualifications at level one, through to masters degrees," said Christine Megson, principal of Stafford College, part of a network of links with two Midlands universities.
"Some are done here, some are taught at the university and some are offered jointly - some are even offered at employers' premises."
Much has been made of the American two-plus-two model of degrees. Students start with two years' study at a college, before finishing off their degree with two years at a local university.
It's a type of teaching which already exists in Staffordshire, where higher national diploma courses taught in colleges are converted into full degrees with a year's university study.
Colleges also offer so-called year zero courses, foundation years which offer what is effectively the first year of a four-year degree programme.
Professor Gerald Bennett, pro-vice-chancellor of Wolverhampton University, one of Stafford College's two university partners, welcomed the warm words currently being applied to college-university links. "We would like to see a continuing emphasis on the University for Industry, a continuing emphasis on access and regional development. and continuing support for regional venture. " But he warned that consistent policies, not bound to year-on-year bids were needed to ensure a sound future for such work.
It is a point echoed by Professor Christine King, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University, which has partnerships with Stafford and 32 other colleges across the Midlands.
She said: "Staffordshire University really is committed to partnerships; it's key to our strength and actually our survival. One reason is recruitment of local students, but the second reason, equally strong, is the regeneration of a community, in this case the educational community.
"I think lifelong learning will be like this. It's beginning to be like that because college staff have begun to study on our masters courses and so on, but we need that to be a two-way network."
She attacked the present funding arrangements for rewarding research for failing to recognise the importance of local collaboration with colleges, industry and local education authorities. "We would like to see financial incentives for regional co-operation - it would be our responsibility, with training and enterprise councils, local offices and colleges, to come up with the plans."
The widespread local links are beginning to have clear economic effects. University and college leaders are co-operating with the local authority on a Single Regeneration Fund bid for Stafford, in an effort to improve part of the town centre, and build educational facilities in deprived areas - putting educational developments at the centre of an economic regeneration plan.
University and college managers say that their work has been developed despite many changes to the organisation of both higher and further education funding. They are now demanding recognition.