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Exclusive with John Widdowson

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The current situation is this: if a college wants to validate a foundation degree, it has to do it with a partner university. Now in many cases that works fine, but there are cases where those universities find it either very difficult to validate in areas they have no expertise in; for example, a partner university may not have a department for construction.

Secondly, there are areas where the colleges have a lot of expertise ““ I would surmise that construction is one of those as well. And thirdly, it can take a lot of time to validate at some universities, and it can be quite expensive as well. Also, I think that part of the story about foundation degrees is actually to get much closer to what employers want. And that also can be difficult because if it takes time to validate the degree, then by the time you”ve gone through all the processes you”ve lost the employer, who has gone somewhere else or done something else.

So what this new clause will do is give a small number of colleges the opportunity and power to validate their own degrees.

There are many colleges who have a long tradition of offering higher education courses anyway. There is the mixed economy group of colleges, which have more than 500 full-time equivalent students. Clearly, we are a lot closer to employers because we work a very local level, and we also have good contacts with students who are currently doing FE provision. We”ve got loads of vocational areas of expertise that perhaps universities do not have.

Also, the other aspect is that we have got a lot of students in colleges who do Level 3 vocational courses, including apprentices, who don”t currently progress into higher education in great numbers. So college validated foundation degrees give an opportunity to progress within the same institution in a seamless way.

I don”t see any merit in the argument that the new power will open up competition between FE and HE – no, not at all, because it is already competitive. I don”t actually think it will make much difference to that. If anything, I think that in some relationships between universities and colleges, it will remove some of those tensions because it will make it pretty clear who is doing what. At the moment, it is not at all clear. I think it will provide some clarity.

I also don”t accept that colleges will become over-stretched. In colleges like those in the mixed economy group, my own college, New College Durham, we already offer higher education provision and have done for decades. Nearly 11% of HE is delivered through further education anyway.

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This will not cause mission stretch. I don”t accept that in any way; I think it is perfectly valid for colleges to offer a limited amount of higher education.

As for employers, they have got to be involved in the design of the foundation degree now; they have got to be involved in the delivery. So all foundation degree students should get a really good slice of work experience and contact with employers, so it is vital that employers are there, to help design the right sort of courses.

It is perhaps not surprising that there has been some controversy over the foundation degree debate, but I think that many of the fears that I have heard are completely misplaced. I don”t think it will destabilise things.

I think the bottom line has got to be that this change will increase the numbers of learners that we get, and increase the number of people with higher-level qualifications.

John Widdowson, Principal, New College Durham.

What do you think about college powers to award foundation degrees?

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