One of the leading colleges of further and higher education in the North East, New College Durham, is hoping to become the first to have Foundation Degree awarding powers.

"The move towards having our own degree awarding powers is a big step," says Graeme Thompson, Head of Curriculum Information Services at New College Durham, "but being able to validate our own degree courses will help us be more responsive to market conditions and our local community, and potentially help increase our HE provision."

In 2007, the Further Education and Training Act made it legally possible for further education colleges to award their own Foundation Degrees. With 1,500 of its students already studying higher education qualifications, New College Durham decided to join a pilot and potentially qualify for its own degree awarding powers.

"We have been using other universities to validate our degrees and, while this process has worked well, we wanted more flexibility to change our courses or offer new ones as the need arose. This will be far simpler to do if we have our own awarding powers."

In order to be considered for this status, colleges need to demonstrate their suitability to the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). Assessors collect evidence on a range of qualitative and quantitative measures via a thorough scrutiny process, which includes group panel interviews with staff. Colleges need to show the QAA that they have reached a secure level of fitness for the powers being sought, and that systems are in place to assure the quality and standard of education provision going forward. Applicants must clearly demonstrate that they are well-founded, cohesive and self-critical.

With a performance and success rate placing them in the top 10% of all colleges nationally, New College Durham felt confident it would measure up to criteria on its capacity to maintain academic standards but the application process provided a catalyst to improve some of the college's weaker areas.

"We had already recognised data collection as an area of development and the application process gave us an opportunity to work out what could be improved. We needed a system that could take large amounts of complex information into account and to give a student's final results at the touch of a button. We approached our student management software provider, Capita Further and Higher Education, to collaboratively reach the best solution. The work that has been done has improved productivity, communication, links between departments and self-analysis for the performance of the college – all essential to gaining the QAA's approval."

There are also cost savings implications to being granted degree awarding powers which, while not the primary motivation for New College Durham, will certainly be welcome in the current climate.

"It currently costs us over £200 per student, per year for external validation and the savings will certainly be helpful," says Graeme. "We estimate the college will save £250,000 per year by not having to pay an external body to validate foundation degrees but the real value will be in highlighting a lot of the excellent work we do here."

By George Layfield, former college manager and sales manager at Capita Further and Higher Education, providers of student management software for colleges, universities and private training providers

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