A unique partnership between a university and a group of further education colleges is breaking new ground in the South-west: for the first time, a new university faculty has been created to deliver higher education via local colleges.
Plymouth university and 12 colleges in Devon, Somerset and Cornwall have come together as equal partners in the University of Plymouth's colleges network, a new faculty equivalent to that of a faculty of arts or social sciences, designed to take higher education out to learners in their local communities.
Rather than travel to the university to study for higher qualifications, students have the opportunity to study for foundation degrees and other two-year qualifications before progressing to a further year's study at the university, ultimately leading to a full BA or BSc.
Launched this month, the partnership brings together the university and Bicton, City of Bristol, Cornwall, East Devon, Exeter, North Devon, Penwith, Truro and South Devon colleges. The other three members are Plymouth college of art and design, Plymouth college of further education and Somerset college of art and technology.
"This is the first time in this country that a university and colleges have come together in a faculty," says Dr Ian Tunbridge, dean of the new faculty.
"Colleges will have an equal say in the way that educational programmes are planned and approved, and the way in which we develop a common educational vision in terms of meeting local needs in the south-west of England.
"We are meeting the needs of people who cannot move away from their local communities and giving them a good start in their university education in a small college environment, while still providing the quality assurance of a large university and the opportunity for progression."
It would be impractical to centralise learning for the communities of south-west England, Dr Tunbridge adds, because many students would have to spend up to two hours travelling to the university in Plymouth.
"If we are going to provide university education for the people of the very rural South-west, we have got to distribute the university's provision," says Dr Tunbridge. "We take the courses out to the communities, rather than expect the communities to come to the university."
The new form of collaboration takes its cue from a model developed in the United States. There, many students spend two years studying at community colleges before moving on to complete their degrees after a further two years of study at state universities.
In particular, it emulates the model at the University of Wisconsin, which collaborates with 30 other colleges in order to provide courses for students in the surrounding semi-rural environments, a situation with clear similarities to the initiative in south-west England.
Part of the rationale behind the university faculty was to give the initiative a coherent image, but it was also to provide a structure within which the colleges and university could work together and a community of teachers could draw on each other's knowledge and experience.
The university has just finished a pilot scheme that focused on two new foundation degrees - in tourism and the creative digital arts. It is now rolling out a portfolio of some 60 foundation degrees to be delivered via local colleges. More than 5,000 students are studying for foundation degrees, HNDs, HNCs, certificates in education and full honours degree programmes.
To ensure the quality of the higher education courses, a series of joint boards has been set up to review the calibre of the provision. Subject forums have also been established to enable teachers within the same disciplines to share their resources and knowledge.
Students in the colleges have access to the university's electronic portal, which offers them online resources, including study skills, numeracy and subject support materials. Students can also use the university library, the students' union and the university's recreational facilities.
The university has worked with local colleges for 15 years, but the new faculty aims to raise the scheme's profile and to streamline courses.
The case of Nigel Searles offers a good example of the way the new system should work. At 19, Nigel enrolled on a National Certificate in building and civil engineering at Plymouth college.
After progressing to an HNC at the college, he went on to complete a BSc in building, surveying and the environment at the university, having been exempted from the first year of university study.
After monitoring the progress of students over a number of years, Dr Tunbridge says that in many cases students in the final year of the university top-up degree programme outperform those on the three-year university courses.
Dr Tunbridge believes that in the near future important organisational developments will allow colleges and universities to join forces to offer comprehensive regional coverage, and that eventually such partnerships will be operating across the country.