Few colleges are well-placed to bid for cash for distance learning innovations. Ian Nash and Anne Nicholls report on a TES NEC survey.
Colleges which have pioneered the hi-tech revolution should be singled out to provide Open University-style courses in different regions of Britain, say leading specialists in adult and further education.
Too few colleges have the expertise and resources needed for the rapid expansion of courses for the growing numbers of students who cannot reach college in normal hours, they say.
The extent of the mismatch between supply and demand revealed in the national survey by the National Extension College and The TES this week has provoked calls for a new national strategy.
Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education and vice-chair of the new government committee on lifelong learning, said: "The survey shows substantial potential for expansion and we need to act fast. It also shows how hard it can be for institutions to change from inherited forms to newer forms of learning support. We do need a national strategy based on regions."
Roger Merritt, assistant director of the NEC, said: "We should not be too pessimistic about the survey. It shows that 70 per cent of colleges do something; they just don't do enough.
The survey showed that new developments were often hard to sustain, he said. "Good practice is being lost because of the rate of staff turnover and the pace of change.
"We need regional partnerships with specialist institutions to give access. Maybe only one college is enough in any one sub-regional group."
The survey shows that the geographical spread of pathfinding colleges throughout England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland could support such a regional initiative.
A possible model, one of many to be looked at by the new government committee as it helps shape the autumn Lifelong Learning White Paper, is the NEC's Flexi-study scheme. This entails 90 colleges supporting each other in the development of open and distance-learning schemes. The NEC provides a central base for seminars, staff development and the dissemination of good practice.
Mr Merritt insists that many of the fears and perceived obstacles to such schemes are ill-founded. "They are very similar to the arguments at the birth of the Open University and they will be the same over the University for Industry."
He accepted that there were problems, particularly over assessment when students were not at college. "It is not always easy to assess at a distance. But the awarding bodies could work better with the providers of learning materials and look to more flexible routes for assessment and accreditation. "
However, colleges had to rethink their strategies. "Anyone who doubts that there is a demand need only look at the OU. The survey reflects the fact that a lot of colleges have expectations that the students will come to them."