Partnerships with universities are ones to cherish

5th March 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Alan Thomson

There's nothing like a shortage of money to test a relationship. Money, or the lack of it, is consistently the top cause of arguments among couples and, as we have seen in the attempts to bail out the Greek economy, it can cause ructions at an international level.

Colleges and universities may be among education's odder couples but their relationships over the past decade or so have proved tremendously fruitful, helping to substantially raise the number of young people from the most disadvantaged areas able to benefit from higher education.

So, it is alarming to learn that some HE panjandrums may be trying to do the dirty on FE by suggesting that universities should cut their partner colleges adrift in a bid to save themselves (page 1).

Those "siren voices", as Les Ebdon describes them, know how desperate universities are to cut costs in the face of what some vice-chancellors are predicting may be a 30 per cent cut to budgets by 2013.

But, as Professor Ebdon alludes, disaster surely awaits any university foolish or desperate enough to axe its own student supply chain to make short-term savings.

That FE has foul as well as fairweather friends in HE is reassuring as both sectors prepare for a financial storm, the worst of which many feel is still to come.

More than 170,000 students currently study HE courses in colleges and are worth pound;400 million a year to the FE sector. The loss of this business would be catastrophic for colleges already facing average cuts of 16 per cent to their adult education budgets and efficiencies across 16-18 education.

Of course, colleges are more than mere conduits to a degree. Arguably, the obsession with degree-level education has stifled the vocational education market, adversely affecting student choice and distorting the UK's skills base.

But any move to cut colleges out of HE market would be a seriously retrograde step. It would sound the death knell of the great widening participation drive of the past two decades and signal the pulling of the ladders back into ivory towers.

The Association of Colleges is right to ask Lord Mandelson to fund colleges directly for the HE they provide. Direct funding would free colleges from their increasingly outmoded dependency on universities for HE courses they have been running for years and it could achieve this without breaking the collaborations and progression routes between partner HE and FE institutions.

Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus

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