Plan for Extension College to become OU's vocational feeder

16th July 2010 at 01:00
Distance learning provider could be revamped as higher education partner under merger proposals

A vocational partner for the Open University is being considered as part of ambitious plans to revive the fortunes of one of the UK's oldest distance learning colleges.

The proposal is part of plans to develop the National Extension College (NEC), which was founded in 1963 by Labour politician and social reformer Michael Young as a prototype for the OU, started six years later.

Details emerged in response to a letter published in FE Focus last month in which former trustees and supporters of the NEC voiced their opposition to the merger of the college with the Learning and Skills Network (LSN). The 14 signatories said they feared the merger would lead to a loss of independence and identity for the NEC.

But Ann Limb, chair of the trustees, said the intention was to build upon the achievements of the NEC and remain true to the founding principles of imaginative educational thinking and social justice, as defined by the late Lord Young.

Dr Limb said she understood people's concerns and the "deep-seated concern" to ensure that the legacy of Lord Young would be honoured.

"I am convinced that the merger with LSN, a charity that has respect for educational outreach work, means these values and principles will be preserved," she said.

Dr Limb said that, despite owning its own three-and-a-half-acre site in Cambridge, the college had struggled financially in the past few years, and consequently it lacked the money to invest sufficiently in the online technologies needed to deliver modern distance learning.

"Basically, the overall investment we needed to make the college viable in the future was beginning to become non-existent," Dr Limb said. "We were left considering whether to let the Cambridge site go, but that really would be like selling the family silver."

Instead, the trustees began a search for a suitable partner and came up with LSN, which it then approached. "I think the LSN's investment in IT and facilities will attract more students and corporate students as well as the college and school markets," she said.

Dr Limb said the NEC planned to double student numbers to 40,000 over the next three years. Beyond this, she said the NEC brand could be further developed nationally and internationally.

"There is no reason why, in five to ten years, there should not be a feed through from the NEC to the OU. There is no reason why we cannot develop pathways through NEC and the vocational route into higher education in the Open University," she said.

John Stone, chief executive of the LSN said: "We do recognise that the NEC is a distinct operation and it will remain a distinct operation within LSN. NEC is an organisation with something of a mission, and it is very much the brainchild of Michael Young. We are very pleased and very proud to be associated with this."

Ros Morpeth, formerly executive director of the NEC, co-ordinated the campaign against merger, which led to the resignation of one of the college's longest serving trustees, Hilary Perraton.

Dr Morpeth argued with others that the college's management should have used the Cambridge site, which she said was conservatively estimated to be worth pound;6.5 million, to recapitalise the college enabling it to retain its independence. She and others offered to produce a recovery plan on this basis.

"I worked with Michael Young for many years and the truth is, he would have bitterly opposed merger. His model was the self-financing charity. What NEC is losing is its ability to determine its own future," Dr Morpeth said.

"I think that had NEC not owned a site in Cambridge, then LSN would not have been so interested."

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