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Leading from the front: New College Durham granted degree awarding powers

John Widdowson CBE is principal and chief executive of New College Durham
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At the end of July, I was delighted to receive confirmation that New College Durham’s application to be one of the first FE colleges in the UK to be granted Foundation Degree Awarding Powers by the Privy Council had been successful.

It was a lengthy journey. We’ve undergone an intense scrutiny process by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) to ensure that the college is well-founded, cohesive and self-critical. We’ve also given our management information system an overhaul to get here. But it will definitely be worth the effort. Having our own degree awarding powers is a big step, and being able to validate our own degree courses will help us be more responsive to market conditions and our local community. It will also potentially contribute to an increase in our HE provision.

At The Start

So, where did this journey begin? In 2007, the Further Education and Training Act made it legally possible for further education colleges to award their own Foundation Degrees.

The potential impact of this change is far-reaching.

To start with, being able to award degrees is likely to challenge people’s perceptions of the value FE colleges can add to the learning journey as well as set standards to encourage continuous improvement within the sector. It drastically reduces any psychological barriers of moving from one institution to another that might prevent an FE student continuing onto higher education and, as many students prefer to stay local rather than leaving home, it will encourage young people to stay in education for longer.

To sum up, the bigger picture suggests to me significant positive repercussions for the worldwide status of the UK’s commitment to excellence in post-16 education.

Raising the Game

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With 1,500 students already studying higher education qualifications at New College Durham, we became one of the first colleges to apply for our own degree awarding powers. To be considered, we needed to demonstrate our suitability to the QAA and I felt confident we were well positioned to do this. After all, our performance and success rate in FE places us in the top 10% of all colleges nationally and our HE courses have always achieved high standards so I knew we would measure up in our capacity to maintain academic standards.

There were areas, however, that going through the application process pushed us to improve, such as our IT and data management processes. Already marked as an area needing development, applying for the powers gave us an opportunity to work out exactly what we needed to operate at maximum efficiency. Specifically we required a system that could take large amounts of complex assessment information from all our courses into account and give us a clear understanding of individual student and overall college performance.

We partnered with Capita Further and Higher Education to collaboratively reach the best solution, so now the college has a real-time snapshot of how different students are progressing throughout the year to see if any issues need to be addressed. My management team are better placed to spot any improvement or decline in the results of a course and to act appropriately. In short, our newly updated management information system has improved productivity, communication, links between departments and self-analysis for the performance of the college – all essential to gaining the QAA’s approval.

Fewer Costs, Improved Outcomes

Saving money was certainly not the prime motivation for seeking degree awarding powers but, at a time when many colleges are faced with declining funding, ways to reduce our out-goings without cutting standards are always welcome. It previously cost us over £200 per student, per year for external validation plus additional costs beyond our control.  FDAP means that we have control over our own costs and systems and expect to make significant savings.

So, now we have secured degree awarding powers, our next step is to develop a suite of qualifications that will provide students with the skills and knowledge they need to progress in their careers and move through life. After proving we meet the stringent criteria for the QAA, I can confidently say that New College Durham is up for the challenge!

John Widdowson CBE is principal and chief executive of New College Durham

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