Degree-awarding powers? Thanks, but no thanks

27th May 2016 at 00:00
Most Scottish colleges aren’t interested in Westminster proposals to widen the higher education market

One Scottish FE college is already seeking the power to award its own degrees, but most institutions would not make use of new freedoms that could make it easier for them to compete directly with universities, TESS research suggests.

Paul Little, principal of City of Glasgow College, said that the college “warmly welcomed” the proposals in Westminster’s higher education White Paper and was “currently seeking” degree-awarding powers.

Edinburgh College also said that it would “broadly welcome” the opportunity to offer its own degrees, although it had no firm plans to do so at this stage.

However, a straw poll of six colleges that deliver a significant proportion of Scottish HE has revealed that four reject the idea of handing out their own degrees, saying that they would prefer to continue to working with universities on HE provision, developing so-called “articulation” routes.

The Westminster government has proposed speeding up the process of assigning degree-awarding powers to providers to create greater choice in the market – a move welcomed by colleges south of the border.

The White Paper – which outlines the UK government’s plans for future legislation on HE – does not automatically apply to the Scottish sector, as education is a devolved issue. But it could serve as an inspiration, and colleges could lobby the Holyrood government for similar plans to be introduced in Scotland, too.

Mr Little said: “As the largest provider of HE in Scotland’s college sector, City of Glasgow College is currently seeking our own degree award-bearing powers. Of the 15,000 technical and professional students who have graduated with us since we became a ‘super college’ in 2010, almost 5,000 have been degree-level graduates.” At present, these degrees are delivered in partnership with universities.

Meeting regional demand

Jon Buglass, associate principal at Edinburgh College, said: “Broadly, we’d welcome the opportunity to award our own degrees. With the ability to create new degree programmes, we could more effectively meet the regional demand for specialised courses aligned with job opportunities.

“In highly technical areas like Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths], for example, there will be demand for new, bespoke, degree-level courses for the jobs of the future.”

But he added that there were “huge benefits” to having degree programmes validated by partner universities, including valuable CPD opportunities for staff. “So, for some areas, awarding our own degrees would be beneficial, and for others, we’d want to keep what we have,” he explained.

The news from City of Glasgow will come as no surprise to many in the sector: the college has a reputation as an ambitious institution with an international approach. In October, it opened its £66 million Riverside campus, which Mr Little said at the time was a “bold statement of intent” to lead the global maritime college community. Currently, about 60 per cent of learners enrolled at City of Glasgow are doing HE courses.

Colleges across Scotland deliver a significant proportion of HE, including provision for students from the most deprived backgrounds. According to Colleges Scotland, 19 per cent of college provision in 2014-15 was HE – largely HNCs and HNDs.

Last week, TESS reported on the articulation routes that allow students to complete an HNC or HND at college before moving straight into the second or third year of a university degree. Our survey reveals that most colleges are not interested in awarding degrees of their own.

A spokesman for West Scotland College said that the institution was “pleased” with its work with university partners on progression routes for students. “We think there have been improvements to this since the merger, partly due to the college’s new scale. We are keen to continue that cooperation and to extend those partnerships”, he added.

Rob Wallen, principal of North East Scotland College, said that the existence of two universities with degree-awarding powers in the North East meant that there would be “absolutely no point in the college striving to obtain degree-awarding powers, too”.

A “more logical” approach, he said, would be for the college to concentrate on delivering provision to HND level and students progressing through articulation, which was “more cost-effective”, and would prevent “unnecessary duplication and competition”.

Ken Thomson, principal of Forth Valley College, said that it was important for providers not to enter into competition with universities but instead to “work together to offer both the practical skills and academic knowledge that employers are looking for”.

A Scottish government spokeswoman said the partnerships that colleges and universities had built up gave students more choice over how they pursued their education.

“These often offer a route into higher education for students from more diverse backgrounds and are important in our efforts to widen access to degree courses,” the spokeswoman added.


Focus on collaboration, not competition

A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland said that the UK government’s bill on higher education and research threw up a number of issues for institutions in Scotland.

“When it comes to the UK government’s desire to open higher education up to more competition, our initial reading of the bill is that its provisions to allow colleges to seek degree-awarding powers would not automatically apply in Scotland,” she said. “Here, our focus is on increasing collaboration, not competition, between universities and colleges, and building more articulation pathways for students.

“This is an important contribution to the shared priority of widening access.”

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