The day Lord Browne’s Review took further evidence to support its work in developing recommendations on Higher Education fees and student finance happened to coincide with the day the Coalition Government published its more detailed agreement on policy.
In a number of areas there appeared to be common cause for concern about social mobility, meeting growing demand for places and addressing the inequalities of the current system which ill-serves the needs of part-time students of all ages.
All this occurred against a backcloth of what was anticipated to be the most savage cuts in public sector spending in a generation.
Evidence to the enquiry from the Association of Colleges (AoC) set out to address some key anxieties relating to lack of visibility and recognition of the college sector’s contribution. In part this is about establishing that Universities and Higher Education are not synonymous – about 10% of Higher Education in England is delivered by 248 Further Education colleges.
There are 178,000 college Higher Education students, a high proportion of whom are part-time, aged over 21 and already in work. Many, though not all, have chosen to study locally. The land-based colleges, for example, offer residential Higher Education programmes catering for rural communities and offering highly specialised provision. The range of college Higher Education provision is impressive, covering as it does Higher National Certificates and Diplomas, professional qualifications and Foundation Degrees, as well as honours degrees.
Students are typically from under-represented groups; often they are the first in a family to obtain a Higher Education qualification. Provision is as varied as a BA Hons in Fine Arts, with its strong focus on developing employability, or enterprise skills, alongside the academic discipline, through to a Foundation Degree in computer game technology to support local industry. New technologies, advanced manufacturing and science can be found alongside qualifications relating to the health, police and service sectors.
Students within the Further Education sector value the focus on teaching and learning as well as the support they receive. The Mixed Economy Group of Colleges (MEG) – which deliver a significant proportion of Further and Higher Education – has commissioned some research into the question of scholarly activity. Since colleges are not generally research intensive institutions, it is important to understand what professional practice and academic research means in this context.
Their report goes on to define this very effectively, as was their intention. By focusing on the student experience and interviewing them via an online questionnaire, the authors, Madeleine King (of both the AoC and MEG), and John Widdowson, Chair of MEG and Principal of New College Durham, were able to pinpoint the priority students place on the professional practice and currency of their teachers, a key dynamic within Higher Education delivered by Further Education colleges.
The recently elected incoming President of the AoC, Chris Morecroft, Principal of Worcester College, also chairs the AoC’s Higher Education Portfolio Group. This group has been supporting the sector to better understand and articulate the impact that colleges make to Higher Education. Members of the group joined AoC’s Chief Executive, Martin Doel, at a Windsor event designed to address the broader agenda of higher skills. Working together with private sector companies, Sector Skills Councils and others, the AoC addressed the question of how to create a credible and easily explained pathway through the alternatives to full-time degrees and beyond. For the first time, the group identified the concept of professional apprenticeships and the Apprentice Professional. This brand would embrace the route from Apprenticeships to Chartered Institute status and would enable the AoC to develop a currency around the poorly defined work of so-called ‘non-prescribed’ Higher Education.
Pat Bacon is President of the Association of Colleges and Principal of St Helens College