FURTHERS MAY FLY
The role of further education colleges is to grow substantially. That's the good news welcomed by, among others, Nadine Cartner, head of policy at the Association for College Management.
"We welcome the opportunity for developing a new generation of institutions offering higher education, focused on teaching and employer-led vocational qualifications," she says. "We foresee FE colleges as leading lights, offering excellent degree-level vocational programmes."
But, amid the clamour of possibilities, she sounds a warning: "We will, collectively, want to ensure against what Margaret Hodge once called 'mission drift'. The sector should not be offering programmes for higher-achieving students to the exclusion of students seeking qualifications at lower levels."
No one knows quite what colleges may become. The Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA) would like government to articulate a clear role for them. It says colleges' sustained role and long-term view should be linked with a commitment to quality, possibly offering a minimum level of HE provision.
LSDA has misgivings about dividing universities into teaching and learning institutions, saying there are disadvantages for learners and staff. "At HE level, research informs teaching," says Maggie Greenwood, LSDA's research manager. "Many universities build their research into teaching modules, which gives them depth and distinctiveness.
"Teachers and lecturers need to keep abreast of research activities to inform teaching at degree level. Staff in FE colleges delivering higher education need more exposure, not less, to a research and development culture. Undergraduate students need access to existing and emerging research, theoretical and empirical." This view has been emphatically echoed by college lecturers' union NATFHE in its submission to the select committee.
LSDA believes research universities may become isolated and the transfer of knowledge more difficult to effect. Able undergraduates in teaching universities will not benefit from working with post-graduates, and progression paths to higher levels of study may be more difficult without role models.
LSDA also thinks that better measures are needed for helping teachers understand the quality of teaching. It says: "Universities are not marked on their teaching in the way that FE colleges are. It is difficult for a 17-year-old applying to university to make any judgment on teaching quality."
QUESTIONS OF QUALITY
The Confederation of British Industry is "reasonably enthusiastic" about foundation degrees and increased provision, says Anne Lindsay, senior policy adviser to the CBI's learning and skills group.
The CBI is reserving its judgment on standards until the first batch of foundation graduates emerge later in the year. Nevertheless, Ms Lindsay says there seems to be enough quality control to safeguard content. "The main thing is that there should be a good balance, so that the degree provides the skills people are looking for."
She adds: "We were involved in the working group and think it has potential. We will encourage our members to look at it. If it meets some of their skills needs, then we say 'go for it'. The idea of greater links between HE and FE is good and we would like to improve our working relationships with universities and colleges."
NATFHE strikes a different tone. It told the select committee that the Higher Education Funding Council for England research indicated there was no great demand for foundation degrees from employers or students. It says the degrees have succeeded only in niche employment sectors where there is employment value, such as in school support teaching.
Paul Mackney, general secretary of NATFHE, says: "In terms of widening participation, it's disappointing that foundation degrees are now seen as the major route for non-traditional students. Poorer students will rightly resent any apparent implication that they should fall back on foundation degrees.
"The lesson of foundation degrees is that employers - and therefore potential students - need to be convinced of their added value. One way is to guarantee progression to the third year of a full degree course, which may then take a little longer than the normal three years. In practice, many foundation degree programmes do this but few market it strongly."
FE colleges, NATFHE says, can make a valuable contribution. But they need adequate resources, and staff require the same opportunities in scholarship, professional development and teaching loads as their colleagues in higher education.
NATFHE told the select committee that work on the 2+ degree needs partnership between FE and HE. Sharing should take place in staff resources and opportunities for development, and there should be collaborative arrangements so that avenues for research and scholarship would be open to staff delivering HE in an FE setting.
All this, according to NATFHE, adds up to the need for far more funding in a world "where further and higher education staff are currently stretched to breaking point". A pound;25 million fund, shared between HEFCE and the Learning and Skills Council and the equivalent Scottish and Welsh bodies would, it says, allow 1,000 extra staff (or equivalents) to be established to improve HEFE liaison.
If government expansion targets are to be met, the Association of Colleges says much more attention should be paid to FE as a major source of new students. It cites Scotland as a role model, where 29 per cent of higher education is taught in the further education sector compared with 7per cent in England. A major reason for this is that most higher education institutions north of the border recognise a Scottish HND as equal to at least the first year of the equivalent degree programme.
DIVIDED WE FALL OUT
The time-honoured expectation of a British univer-sity is that it should offer research, teaching and knowledge transfer. So it is no surprise that proposals to divide the sector into teaching and research institutions are opposed by Universities UK.
"Britain has committed to the Bologna Process to create a European higher education area that emphasises indivisibility in education between teaching and research," said a Universities UK spokeswoman. "Any such division would take us out of step with Europe."
UUK has supported the development of foundation degrees and says it will continue to work with employers and further education partners in developing focused, work-based courses. Yet, like NATFHE, it questions the demand for them.
"The issue isn't one of quality - they will be subjected to the same procedures of quality assurance - but whether a sufficient market exists.
We have argued that this should be researched thoroughly," says the spokeswoman.
UUK has other concerns. It believes widening participation "should not push applicants from lower socio-economic groups into particular courses". It also sees possible complications arising from Foundation Degree Forward, the university network being set up to provide a dedicated validations service. "This may complicate responsibilities for quality assurance and we remain to be convinced that it would add much value."
UUK has misgivings about funding arrangements, despite the apparent substantial increases that are designed to encourage the expansion of foundation degrees. Its fear is that this "may conceal a difficult outcome for the funding of teaching overall".
The spokeswoman adds: "Our calculations show that, once new activity in the form of earmarked initiatives is stripped out, there is no real-terms increase - indeed, probably a decrease - in the unit funding of teaching per student over the next three years.
"We believe public money for further expansion should reflect the full range of provision - degree and sub-degree, full-time and part-time, work-related and continuing professional development - and not necessarily all channelled into foundation degrees."
LESLEY PAINTS A BIGGER PICTURE
Lesley Rees would not be where she is today but for her local further education college. She has gone from the shopfloor to an MBA; from driving a truck in a warehouse to a buyer's job entailing travel at home and abroad.
A lot has happened to Lesley in her 45 years. She trained as a nurse, married young, had two children quickly and, while they were quite young, got divorced.
It was a low point: confidence was in short supply and, with money tight, she needed employment. She worked briefly for Mothercare and then got a job with Crown Paints in a new warehouse in her home town of Rugby, Warwickshire.
It was a lucky break. "There was a new management team, very receptive to ideas," she says. "Within six weeks I became a team leader."
Lesley began climbing the management ladder and was posted to a job in Darwen, Lancashire. But she had long felt a lack of theoretical knowledge was holding her back.
So, having completed an Open University foundation course, she began studying at Blackburn College for a diploma in management studies. She was supported in this by her employer, Akzo-Nobel, Crown Paints' parent company.
Lesley gained a distinction in the diploma and stayed on an extra year to take an MBA. She says: "It has been very important because I wanted to be able to argue my point and so thought I had to do something about my education. I have always been good with people, but used just to do things on gut feeling."
She says none of this would have been possible without the co-operation of her past employer and her current one, home improvement chain Bamp;Q, for whom Lesley works as decorative paint buyer at company headquarters in Southampton.
"The hard bit was fitting everything in," she says. "But if I had not done it, I know I would not be in the position I'm in now."
PHIL'S DEGREE REALLY DELIVERS
After 10 years in the parcel-carrying business, Phil Briggs knows a lot about moving things around. Yet Phil, a senior branch manager with LYNX Express who run depots in Birmingham, Derby and Stoke, has become an enthusiastic student of a pioneering foundation degree in logistics management.
LYNX has played a part in shaping the degree. Collaborators include North Warwickshire and Hinkley College, Coventry University and other employer bodies. The degree, devised in 2001, involves 16 modules. Thought to be the first of its kind, it reflects the growing status of the logistics and distribution sectors. It covers areas such as strategic planning, e-commerce, new technology and customer service, and sector and supply chain relationships.
It is also designed as a potential starting point for further study towards professional qualifications or a related honours degree. David Burtenshaw, LYNX Express chief executive, says: "The availability of such recognised qualifications will help attract high-calibre individuals and encourage those within the industry to pursue career goals.
"It's an ideal, broad-based introduction to the skills required within all types of business, focusing on key areas such as transport and warehouse management, and logistics theory and practice."
Despite his broad experience, Phil says the foundation degree has opened his eyes. "It has given me a great insight and broadened my horizons," says the 36-year-old former miner, who lost his job at the coalface when Silverdale colliery closed.
"I've now an appreciation of inventory management and other things not directly related to what I do. I have learned about the complete supply chain and acquired some transferable skills."