We must change the broad picture

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
In 1997 the Kennedy report said: "We know how to widen participation, now we need to make it happen." Since then, the public attention that has followed Kennedy's call to arms for FE is dwarfed in comparison to that given to widening participation in higher education.

The considerable successes in the widening of access in HE has been built on the inclusive and capacity-building practices of FE, and adult and community learning partnerships. For example, the development of access courses was a key initiative in seeking to address change within the nature of HE, and the prime factor in their success was that they were driven by committed academics in FE and HE.

The role of FE in the 2003 HE White Paper is limited to its expansion as a provider of HE. It is somewhat surprising, though, that given this commitment there has been no room for thinking through the role of the Office for Fair Access.

In fact the focus of the OFFA proposals on admissions is on the traditional model of students moving from A-levels in schools into three-year, full-time honours degrees in universities - regulating the gold standard.

It is unfortunate that at a time when we have a government with the greatest-ever commitment to social inclusion in HE, it is not building on the successes of the past where partners were empowered to build links.

Instead, it has opted for the culture used in the utilities privatisation process of introducing regulators to affect behavioural change, but in this case has only looked at part of the equation.

The narrow focus of the proposals on entry to HE, rather than student success and curriculum change, coupled with the lack of acknowledgement of progression from FE to HE, provides a partial response to what is needed to make real change.

This is a missed opportunity to make a difference in participation within HE as it does not promote alternative routes, which have been marginalised for years.

Given that 90 per cent of young people with two A-levels already achieve a place in HE, all the new proposals will achieve is greater choice of courses and universities for students who were already continuing their education. That in itself is a good thing but does not change the broader picture of who benefits from HE.

For years FE and adult education practitioners have led the way in developing community links and progression routes. They have been told by successive governments that the new vocational routes have parity with A-levels. But much of HE has never really accepted that parity and the FE staff have had to encourage, argue and cajole to secure progression.

There is an opportunity to make a real difference by requiring the HE institutions that wish to set high variable top-up fees the task of indicating in return what their approaches to progression from such vocational routes and part-time study are going to be. They could also be required to set targets which are approved as part of the access agreement.

The Government will argue that all this could be included if the HE sector did it voluntarily and, as they are only regulating the fees for full-time students, they cannot address part-time. Of course there is logic to that but this is a public policy issue.

The evidence collected through local inspections, subsequent 14-19 action plans and the Aimhigher initiative clearly indicates that the vocational routes into HE are not well understood, and that appropriate guidance to learners is patchy because of the variability of their acceptability.

It is precisely in such scenarios that FE has excelled in designing and arguing for new routes and provision. Of course such change requires curriculum engagement within HE to make sure that the learner is able to manage in a different environment. This is why many universities link their widening participation and learning and teaching strategies.

Opportunities are being created to address some of these issues through the pound;250 million Aimhigher initiative and the recently announced Lifelong Networks. The challenge will be how these developments fit with the role of the regulator in securing change and the rightful role of FE.

Geoff Layer is dean of the school of lifelong education and development at the University of Bradford

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