The hybrid market-led approach to higher education is the only viable model, argues David Eade. Many colleges have been concerned about what they perceive as growing hostility towards higher education in further education from both the Higher Education Funding Council for England and some of the universities which see a threat in its development.
The political and financial environment that over the past five years promoted the rapid expansion of higher education in universities and further education has vanished.
The view that higher education in further education (over 100,000 students on non-prescribed higher education courses, 40,000 on franchised courses and 36,000 on validated courses) has saved the Government the cost of building 20-plus universities the size of York or seven universities the size of Leeds has been overtaken by one that says these students could and should fill empty places on university courses, or, more brutally, are not deserving of higher education at all.
Furthermore, it is argued that this would help to ensure quality control. Some academics are only comfortable with the view that degrees must be awarded just to students studying at a university or higher education institution.
Some universities have made it plain that in times of financial restraint and in the face of a possible contraction of the sector, HEFCE should stick to its core business, which is support for the universities. Support should be reduced or even removed for what these universities clearly see as a "misguided" Government initiative that has allowed some higher education courses to move into further education.
The truth is that there has been a higher education presence in further education for many years. Many of the new universities had their roots and origins in the sector.
However, the growth of higher education in further education is a recent phenomenon and a highly cost-effective system has been created, which has already put into effect changes in staff contracts and one that does not seek large research budgets.
Further education colleges currently deliver over 11 per cent of higher education but certainly do not get 11 per cent of HEFCE's budget and HEFCE appears to have no intention of diverting more of its funds towards the colleges.
Many factors lead further education to see itself yet again as that part of the education system that has the least support. How much impact have modularisation and semesterisation had on modes of delivery in the older universities? How far have most higher education institutions moved on the concept of "lifelong learning"?
There are still plenty of well-qualified 18 to 21-year-old students applying for their programmes so what impetus have they to change? The failure to create a unified credit accumulation and transfer system, and the lukewarm response from the Higher Education Quality Council for such a system, are all indicative of a culture which has moved very little.
There is no doubt the funding allocation has reduced budgets available to all universities. This has made older universities realise that they are now part of a unified sector where supply of places outstrips demand. Students are no longer as mobile as they once were because of lower student grants and their reluctance to get into debt via student loans when graduate unemployment is over 10 per cent.
The older universities appear alarmed by the regionalisation of higher education. Reduced emphasis on academic excellence as the primary reason for student choice strikes at their hopes of having a student body that is anything other than mainly traditional middle-class 19 to 21-year-old participants. On the other hand, the reported moves to develop the composite university/further education college may be in part an attempt by the new universities to capture as large a proportion of local students as is possible, thus securing their own future.
HEFCE cannot ignore the fact that the policy which stimulated the growth of higher education in further education has worked well. It has allowed sections of the community who were otherwise marginalised to demonstrate their ability to benefit, participate and succeed.
In the absence of a fairer allocation of resources, which the HEFCE consultative document, A Future Funding Approach, effectively rules out, the retention of the hybrid market-led approach is the only viable model for the foreseeable future as it allows for a flexible and positive response to clients' needs. To discard the positive contribution further education has made to the nation's higher education provision for the illusory benefits of administrative neatness and adherence to policies that have not even been openly discussed should not be contemplated.
Any centrally organised redefining of higher education in further education that restricts the variety and level of work undertaken by further education would be counterproductive. It would fail to support some of the most dynamic, flexible, efficient and innovative curriculum developments in higher education instigated by further education at considerable expense and against the odds.
Many further education colleges collaborate very successfully with their local universities and the colleges' programmes complement the higher education institutions' larger curriculum portfolio. Colleges have been seeking for years to develop projects that enhance the local provision available to their students. This collaboration is working well but it is a long way from having colleges fit their strategic plans around a higher education institution's strategic plan.
There is no doubt that colleges believe that higher education would have the veto on any project and it would be the higher education institution's strategic plan which would have precedence. Many providing higher education in further education remember when the Government capped maximum aggregate student numbers, the letters arriving from their local higher education authority giving six months' notice of the cancellation of franchises. The reality of the kind of partnership they were in was brutally clear to colleges.
I for one would be very reluctant to have to face the possibility of this college's MASN allocation, finance and validation of higher education courses coming via one higher education institution. If the higher education institution catches a financial chill the college suffers terminal pneumonia with years of work disappearing almost overnight.
How much will the higher education institution charge for its services and who will pay the service charge? Cynically I assume it will be the further education college. At Barnsley, we have validated and franchised courses from five higher education institutions. If we are tied to one higher education institution, who sorts out and pays for the intellectual property rights of programmes initiated by us and validated by the other institutions, who will almost certainly lay claim to those programmes?
A regional grouping of institutions to plan higher education provision would be a very difficult forum to manage. It may have difficulty in even agreeing on a date to meet, much less on what its agenda would be. Such a move could well stifle attempts to continue developing higher education in colleges, a cause that might well be lost in the larger agenda of faculty survival in higher education institutions.
I hope that both the Government (of whatever political persuasion) and the HEFCE remain committed to developing access to higher education, wherever its location, by funding quality provision which gives value for money, meets local needs and contributes significantly to developing a skilled work force.
In times of financial restraint it is even more important that highly cost-effective systems for delivering undergraduate qualifications are supported to ensure that the maximum number of students who will benefit both themselves and the nation are given the opportunity for higher education.
David Eade is chief executive of Barnsley College.