JONATHAN Daube is shocked by the state of British further education. Forty-one years ago, he left a "class-ridden" education system to seek his fortune across the Atlantic. He returned this September on a short sabbatical from his job as president of an American community college to find that depressingly little had changed.
"There is an obsession with status and hierarchy, particularly in post-18 education, which is dispiriting," says Mr Daube, who has spent the past three months touring 18 higher and further education institutions, from Oxbridge colleges to Tower Hamlets FE college in London's East End.
"By far the most exciting visit I had was to Tower Hamlets," he says. "There was such a sense of community pride in the place and such a sense of commitment to education, but the reality is that there is a kind of educational apartheid which separates people there from the students in some of the higher status institutions I saw.
"Any Oxford or Cambridge college should be proud to be recruiting the very best students from Tower Hamlets. If you think about it, it makes sense. They should be taking the top few per cent from grassroots institutions like that. The reality is that this does not happen here."
As the head of the 12,000-student Manchester community college in central Connecticut, 65-year-old Mr Daube, who left England to work in a United States comprehensive school in 1963 after five years teaching in the highly selective Manchester and Watford grammar schools, says he regularly sees his top students progress to top colleges.
"There is no distinction between higher and further education," he says. "We give out all kinds of qualifications, including degrees. About 800 students get degrees every year. People move not with total ease, but with more ease than here, through the system. A person can go from Manchester community college into a university. And if they do really well, Yale will take someone from our second year into their third year. Can you imagine someone going from further education into the second year at Oxford?
"It is quite realistic to see someone going from Connecticut for their BA to Yale for their MA to Harvard for their Ph.D," explains Mr Daube.
The average age of students at Manchester community college is 30, and Mr Daube believes that the relative fluidity of post-16 education in the US relies on a greater acceptance that students from different backgrounds will progress at different rates. By contrast, in higher education in the UK it is common to restrict grants for postgraduate study to the under-30s. Two-thirds of Mr Daube's students study part-time, and about one-third of them are from ethnic minorities.
"If your government wants to widen access to higher education, they should really be looking at the American community college," he says.
With Education Secretary Charles Clarke last month saying that further education was vital to widening access to universities, tentative moves have already been suggested to remove barriers between the two sectors on this side of the Atlantic. The Association of Colleges, for instance, has proposed allowing further education college students to take higher education modules that would count towards the points score they need for university, and records of achievement being considered as replacements for current higher education degree classifications.
But Mr Daube believes a much more radical approach is needed. "I don't think there should be any distinction between the institutions," he says. "You made some progress with the bringing of the polytechnics into the university fold in 1992 but you didn't finish the job. You need to do the same thing with colleges now.
"I hope if I come back here in my wheelchair in 30 years, all colleges will be called universities. I hope they will have vice-chancellors and professors and they will be giving degrees.
"Some of these 'universities' may have more of a teaching focus than some other institutions, some may be awarding more non-degree qualifications - but they will all be seen to be doing the same job."