Now is not the time to be breaking links

26th March 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Professor Les Ebdon

We are in a period of economic political and policy turmoil in education which places the status quo under serious strain or, to put it another way, like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, you have to run to stand still.

These pressures are being felt in the partnerships between higher and further education. There are persistent rumours, some of them reported in FE Focus, of universities seeking to exit long-standing partnerships with FE colleges.

As a pioneer of these relationships and a vigorous supporter of their continuation, I was pleased to see the strong denial by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) that it is in any way complicit. It would be a tragedy if, having brokered so many deals between universities and colleges, it was not continuing to be a strong supporter of such relationships.

The clear change of policy, announced by the HEFCE spokesperson in the article of March 5, that students who top up their local university to a bachelors degree, having completed a foundation degree at a FE college through a franchise arrangement from the university, would not count again towards the cap on numbers, is also most welcome.

Any repatriation to a university of HE student numbers at short notice to solve funding problems, or pressure on the new students cap, limits transformational progression opportunities and undermines widening participation strategies. The latter is an often widely proclaimed key plank of government and HEFCE policy.

The ethos of the University of Bedfordshire is conveyed in our values statement, which are embraced in our transformational mission of ASPIRE (access, scholarship, partnership, innovation, respect and employability).

I advocate the "values driven university". The think tank Million+ has at the core of its mission the remit to encourage "people from every walk of life to benefit from access to universities". Often that access comes through the local FE college in partnership with HE.

Foundation degrees in FE colleges and local part-time opportunities are important in providing the highly skilled workforce the economy needs in a way which is accessible to groups of people who may be unable to travel to their local university.

I continually use the word "partnership" about the relations between FE colleges and universities as we have much to learn from each other.

Ministers and civil servants often forget that more students progress to universities from FE colleges than from schools and, in most Million+ universities, the partner colleges are the chief suppliers of undergraduates in these universities.

True partnerships are only built up over many years as trust evolves between partners. We all know that partnerships can be destroyed rapidly at times of tension, when people do things which destroy trust.

It may be difficult and challenging to sustain a partnership in the face of pressures on the student number cap and the horrors of a non-completion audit, but it is precisely by standing by our FE college partners in difficult times that we will build the trust which will enable these partnerships to flourish and to grow when, once again, the economy and educational provision expand.

Professor Les Ebdon CBE, Vice-chancellor and chief executive, University of Bedfordshire; chair, Million+.

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