Grasp the 'tertiary moment' 1

November 19, 2004

You quote Caroline Neville on the need for greater autonomy for mixed-economy colleges in their higher education work, but suggest that "allowing colleges to break free from partnerships appears to contradict the general policy direction" (Further Education Special, November 12).

Surely not. Breaking free from illegitimate shackles is part of finding the autonomy that Neville calls for. Partnership requires mutuality of purpose and benefit, not the abuse of control that work commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England found in too many franchise arrangements.

David Melville, chair of the Universities Vocational Awards Council, calls for a confident identity for the further education sector and points to the local communities' "ownership of and esteem for" community colleges in New York State.

There was a time when polytechnics and colleges alike breathed a sigh of relief to be free from local communities in the form of local education authorities. Some of this local control was interfering and weak in vision.

We need to rediscover self-directing autonomous colleges within a more encompassing notion of lifelong learning opportunity, based on partnership at local or sub-regional level.

The Council for National Academic Awards was not always loved in its time, but its utility and rigour are more celebrated with the distance of time.

It could be simple to create a new CNAA for foundation degrees, in the process sidestepping some of the problems emerging for mixed-economy colleges about ownership, pricing and marketing.

In these days of widening participation, regional planning and the Office for Fair Access, Russell Group universities need a strong further education sector and good vocational tertiary pathways as much as individual students, the economy and society do.

Niace, the national adult learners' organisation, is hosting a seminar on tertiary and lifelong learning this week, the concluding paper for which asks whether this is not indeed "the tertiary moment". The Scots have taken up the challenge. Maybe we can do the same and start more consistently to "behave tertiary" in the collective interest.

Chris Duke
Associate director higher education, Niace,
and honorary professor of lifelong learning, Leicester University

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