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Unique place for the poor relation

Seemingly very different, the two front-page articles - "Principal takes helm at new UK university" and "Colleges are the poor relation" - in FE Focus, July 22, together point to serious questions about further education's identity.

It is important that issues regarding status, as well as perceptions of status, are considered as part of the review being fostered by the Charlotte group.

Looking first at the university sector, there are clear links between further and higher education.

Any college with no HE provision would have been very unfortunately squeezed in a crowded local market. In practice, even before the advent of foundation degrees, links between colleges and universities were, in many cases, established.

Colleges may not provide all three years of a degree, but they often furnish students with a local introduction to university-level study. In this way, FE colleges act as a local satellite for university provision.

It appears, then, that there is no great divide between HE and FE. People such as Dr Holmes - who was deputy vice-chancellor at the University of North London before becoming a college principal - can have careers that blend FE and HE experiences. Yet the movement of a college principal to a university vice-chancellorship is unusual. Indeed, the commentary suggests that this is the first such event. Perhaps as important as its rarity is the fact that it is regarded as noteworthy. Does this reflect a vestige of inferiority within the FE camp?

There is a less subservient and simpler explanation, which is the expectation that universities will be headed by a senior academic. Yet, this is not universally true - and not just because of the tendency for superannuated Cabinet ministers or exceedingly senior civil servants to move, effortlessly, to masterships at Oxbridge colleges. Increasingly, universities - like many public-sector organisations - are open to a diversity of applicants. A notable example is Sir Richard Sykes, who moved from being chairman of Glaxo-SmithKline to head Imperial College London.

If universities are seen as higher up the pecking order than FE, colleges have been a positive career choice for many who had the alternative of working in schools.

So, the idea that "colleges are the poor relation" to schools seems odd.

Yet, the recent finding that FE receives 13 per cent less for each 16 to 18 year-old student than schools is sufficient to indicate that, in strictly financial terms, there is something in the claim.

Moreover, if FE is second class in terms of current funding, there is no guarantee that the funding gap will be reduced in the near future.

Nor is the finding the only financial indicator to suggest that FE has a lower status. Pay in the sector may have increased, but it has done so at a markedly lower rate than that received by teachers in schools.

Three factors, evident in the pages of The TES, appear - on the surface at least - to make conditions even worse. First, there seems to be notable variety in terms of payments that colleges seek to make for the same, or very similar, lecturing roles.

Second, attitudes to hours of work, annual leave and so on, which accompany formal conditions of service, also seem to vary from college to college.

Third, as the workload revisions promised for schools come into effect, many FE lecturers - including those responsible for level 4 (degree-level equivalent) provision - may well end up teaching more hours a week than school teachers.

Despite this, there are valid reasons for thinking that, while FE may be a relation, it is not a poor relation.

The difference arises from the historical relationship between universities and schools. Universities have been able, partly through the public exam system, to promote greater space for education in schools. In contrast, FE's overall provision is broader.

FE has always had a closer relationship with industry and it has always had a mode of operation which is more immediate and more concerned with the bottom line. As such, the fact that finance is tight in FE is not surprising. It might indicate that closer relationships with other, more autonomous, spheres of education seem desirable. Equally, it may be advantageous to stress the sense of FE's relevance, of its capacity to build social bridges, of the way it can take school students with modest achievement and foster in them an interest in learning such that a good proportion gain qualifications equivalent to those required for university entrance.

While seeking to redress the financial shortcomings, it is worth noting that FE is, and always has been, different from other sectors of the education system.

This distinctiveness is one of FE's major strengths. It could be the basis for forming a confident and unified identity for FE.

Graham Fowler is a further education researcher, writer and consultant

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