Close encounters of a higher kind

May 3, 1996

Roy Brown, the first professor in the college sector, outlines the benefits of running degree courses with universities. Few in either further or higher education need reminding that we are living in difficult times. In further education the pressure to push downwards the average level of funding per student, raise student numbers and encourage competition in some areas makes for an uncertain future.

There is a trend in some colleges to diversify and move into higher education. Many are operating under a franchise agreement whereby they may contribute to degree and Higher National Diploma courses or even deliver whole programmes under the umbrella of the parent university or equivalent institution.

This may provide a more cost-effective way of delivering courses and helps both the college and the university. They may form a much stronger relationship in which the college is in formal partnership with a university and is delivering courses that are not available elsewhere in the university. To all intents and purposes the college is operating as a faculty or school of that university.

In September 1995, I joined the staff of Bishop Burton College as the director of research. I had previously held the chair of countryside management at the University of Plymouth for five years and before that had worked extensively in the public sector.

The decision to appoint someone of professorial standing with the intention of transferring this status to the college has far-reaching implications. The final decision, that of the incumbent to take on the post, has the greatest element of opportunity and challenge for the college, the University of Humberside with which it is in partnership, and for the career of the individual concerned.

Bishop Burton was established as a county agricultural college in 1954. It has undergone rapid transformation since then, offering short, part-time and full-time courses in many areas of rural activity including agriculture and horticulture as a further education college.

Several years ago HND programmes began and the summer of 1996 will see the graduation of the first cohorts of BSc students in countryside management and two extremes of equestrian studies. There are plans for the range of subjects available to be expanded over the next few years and approximately 400 students at the college are involved in either HND or BSc courses.

There are strong traditions and strengths in the agricultural, horticultural and design areas and it is hoped to capitalise on these. These are all unique courses in the context of the university and part of the thinking behind appointing a director of research at a high academic level is both to provide an academic focus and to help with the development of an overall ethos as far as higher education is concerned.

In common with many other colleges that have made a decision to appoint a research director or equivalent, one of the main objectives of the post is to generate additional income, particularly through trials and research consultancy-type work. In this particular case, however, the objectives go much further: to give the college a unique stamp at the highest level of research (in this case rural sustainability) and to improve the quality of higher education by encouraging existing staff to do research degrees and by attracting new staff to strengthen the academic portfolio.

Suitably qualified staff may have an input into both further and higher education in colleges. The specialist demands, particularly of degree courses, mean staff allocations dedicated to higher education are increasingly being made. Hard-pressed staff in the further education areas question the use of resources. It would be wrong to pretend that an increasingly pluralistic society is not developing in the colleges and it is therefore critical that people are fully informed and understand the benefits that can be gained from it.

We are living in times of change in terms of student demand, public accountability and the way we fund ourselves. There is little doubt that careful niche marketing by colleges involved in higher education will create positive opportunities for everyone. Even where colleges are evolving to have greater involvement in higher education they frequently have a long-established and important role in many aspects of further education and it is vital that this is not overlooked.

At my own college there is a variety of provision from children with special needs through to postgraduate research degrees and beyond. It is vital that higher education in the college sector supports and supplements its existing functions and does not grow at the expense of other activities.

Because there is no hidebound academic tradition in colleges but rather a series of subject areas, they are in a unique position to create new moulds of skills and resources that the complex and multidisciplinary subject areas of the late 20th century require. Colleges in the rural sector in particular often have the space and physical plant to help development.

There are areas of expertise that will not exist elsewhere in a partner university and with careful management these can be coordinated and developed so that high academic standards can be achieved. There is often a practical tradition that enables a further dimension to be brought to studies.

There are, of course, weaknesses. In addition to constraints on resources and funding there is often a lack of corporate identity in academic terms. In some areas staff will need substantial training and the opportunities to gain broader experience in order to deliver programmes at the highest possible standard. There are the uncertainties of market forces in terms of subject areas. The provision of higher education programmes in colleges is at the mercy of the collaborating university and it, in turn, has to respond to political and financial demands.

But colleges are good places in which to develop multidisciplinary and less traditional approaches that can greatly expand a university portfolio. Good further education colleges have a sound operational basis that makes the incorporation rather than grafting on of higher education activities possible. Frequently standards of teaching are high and this is of particular benefit to students who have come from less traditional academic backgrounds.

But it is important not to become too starry-eyed. There is a chronic lack of funding, increasing competition, and I suspect there will be a general decreasing demand in many areas of higher education as potential students look at the costs and job opportunities.

The need to achieve a specific identity, such as the one being developed in sustainable rural land use at Bishop Burton, is one key but this requires coordination and investment at many levels.

Allied to this is the need to develop higher education programmes that will sustain themselves and that can be relatively easily adapted as demand shifts. A classic case of this is seen in the changing balance between conservation and production issues in the countryside where the emphasis has changed at least three times in the past 25 years.

This leads to my final point in what is deliberately a positive approach to the relationship between higher and further education in the colleges of the United Kingdom. That is that in addition to a sound academic approach the colleges are frequently uniquely placed to incorporate practical and focused vocational elements into both the courses they deliver and the lines of research and consultancy they undertake. By identifying the areas of need and taking a pragmatic approach to delivery, with an eye always to costs, colleges have a major role to play in higher education. Carefully managed vertical diversification will not only strengthen their partner universities but enable their own survival and even growth.

Roy Brown is director of research at Bishop Burton College, a post created in September 1995. He holds the chair of sustainable rural land use through the University of Humberside, a chair partially sponsored by the Rhone Poulenc Group.

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