Leader: Shift could endanger foundation

In offering colleges new powers, the Government could find that it damages the very qualifications it set out to improve and extend

October 16, 2008

As if the qualifications waters were not murky enough, the effects of the Further Education and Training Act risk making them impossible to penetrate.

The Government has foisted a variety of qualifications on a bewildered public with little explanation and differentiation - they would almost deserve to be ignored if it were not for their importance, especially in widening access.

The foundation degree was an exception. Its aim was clear: a vocationally oriented qualification devised by further education colleges and employers in a true partnership with higher education. It would gain rigour and status by being awarded by the higher education partner. The higher education sector was given good reason to take part and ensure quality because foundation degrees were intended as a stepping stone to a full degree - students would do a two-year vocational course then continue to university to complete their third year and earn an honours degree.

Foundation degrees are, however, still in their infancy and relatively untested. Because they can be taken part time by students in work, the numbers who have progressed to the full degree are still small, and success can be difficult to evaluate. Thus, it is short-sighted in the extreme for the Government to extend new powers to colleges through the Further Education and Training Act, which grants further education the unlimited ability to franchise foundation degrees and allow other institutions to deliver them while also giving them responsibility for assuring quality.

Any move to cut universities out of the equation could undermine foundation degrees. They need the academic credibility that only universities can supply. Universities UK was right to warn the Government that if higher education does not retain its degree-awarding powers in further education colleges, students and employers might shun foundation degrees and universities and colleges might cease to offer them. And once the public loses confidence in these degrees, they are doomed.

And it's not just quality that is at stake, but collaboration between the sectors. Universities like to work collegially, but the new environment could pit partner higher education and further education institutions against each other in a fight for students. For Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of universities, this is an example of Janus Government. "It is a classic case of government policy facing two ways - incentivising competition while applauding collaboration."

In responding to criticism of the new legislation, the Government has been quick to accuse universities of self-interest. Bill Rammell, when he was Higher Education Minister, said: "I think some of the comments made have been with a view to protecting (universities') own organisational interests, which isn't the same thing as the consumer or business interest."

He is, of course, correct. But it is not for universities to defend the rights of business or consumers. They look out for the interests of higher education, which need protecting, especially when, as UUK has so rightly pointed out, the Government has failed to solicit universities' views in a move that affects many of them greatly.

There are some, like John Widdowson, principal of New College Durham, who say that universities' approval methods can be too slow. One reason New College gave for becoming the first further education college to apply to award its own degrees was that it would be easier to respond to employers' changing demands.

And yet, employer input is at the heart of foundation degrees. Perhaps businesses would do well to stop trying to meddle in traditional degrees and instead ensure that they play a serious and responsible role in the qualification that was designed with their needs in mind.

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