Cumbria College of Art and Design has applied to be transferred out of further education and into the higher education sector in a controversial move to be discussed by funding council officials today, writes Alison Utley.
Principal David Vaughan said it was a nonsense for the college to continue to be designated as further education when eight out of ten students there were enrolled on higher education programmes. However, Professor Vaughan feared his application could be blocked or delayed by the Further Education Funding Council whose empire could start shrinking following a spate of merger talks between FE colleges and universities.
"The FEFC wants to hold on to us in this climate, which leaves us in a quite absurd position," he said. "This issue really does strengthen the argument for doing away with two separate sectors, as common sense suggests that closer links are needed between further and higher education. We see the sectors as one continuum."
The college currently offers seven degrees validated by the University of Central Lancashire and four HND programmes amounting to 79 per cent of its work. The Higher Education Funding Council for England funds this directly.
Professor Vaughan stressed that there was no indigenous higher education institution at present in Cumbria and the Borders region, although Northumbria University has a campus at Carlisle, and switching sectors would offer progression opportunities currently denied to some students. Merger with a nearby university was not an option being considered, although approaches had been made by seven or eight institutions.
Vice principal Peter Harman said moves to "slow down" the transfer application were causing concern in the college, which viewed the move as the first step towards creation of a genuine higher education institution for Cumbria and Carlisle. "We would like to see our application concluded rapidly to prevent further hold-ups to our expansion plans," Mr Harman said. The transfer would also strengthen employer and industry support for the college.
Cumbria is a large county, but the traditional further education market in the region has declined, according to Mr Harman, due to the lack of discretionary awards and the costs of travel.
A spokeswoman for the FEFC said today's meeting would decide whether to recommend the transfer to the secretary of state according to criteria drawn up recently. The main concern would be that existing provision would be upheld.
The college has an 11-acre world heritage site and has recently completed a Pounds 1.4 million accommodation development. Other plans were awaiting the funding council's decision, Mr Harman said.