Cross-sector partnerships must build on their strengths, says John Widdowson.
Colleges have a crowded agenda, with an enhanced role in delivering the vocational component of the 14-to-19 reforms, a central place in the Skills Strategy and in improving adult basic skills. The 2010 target for wider participation in higher education also creates the potential for colleges to bring their record of innovation and responsiveness to make a significant contribution.
A clear role has been identified, with the prospect of more directly funded provision and new approaches to validation. Nevertheless, the immediate challenge for colleges and their partners in the higher education sector is to find new ways of working that can build on the strengths of both without letting sectoral self-interest stand in the way.
Across the country, colleges and universities are engaged in debate about how these relationships are to work in future. As research has shown, the pattern of relationships between colleges and higher education institutions is varied, with radically different arrangements for funding, validation and collaborative working.
The recently announced Lifelong Learning Networks may provide one way of tackling these issues with the potential to regularise relationships and ensure that openness and transparency underpin new ways of collaborating.
If approached positively and with a willingness to innovate, colleges and universities can work together to engage new learners and stimulate the demand for higher level vocational skills.
However, the assumption that most universities intend to set their fee levels at the maximum level of £3,000 concerns many colleges, not least because the price sensitivity of foundation degrees is untested. It is also unclear what advantages holders of foundation degrees will enjoy in the job market in terms of salary and employability.
Agreeing a way forward is likely to be a test for many partnerships.
Indirectly funded colleges may find themselves applying fee levels and arrangements for bursaries and other incentives that they do not think is the most appropriate for their students or the needs of their local area.
Given the same fee, students may decide to study at a university or other higher education institutions rather than at their local college. Colleges benefiting from direct funding have difficult decisions to make that could dramatically affect their ability to recruit and retain students. Those choosing to charge a lower fee will have to guard against the risk that such provision will be assumed to be of inferior quality. On the other hand, quality provision at an affordable price may be a powerful message to new learners, particularly if progression pathways to higher study are clear and straightforward and in the vocational areas they want.
Colleges that take up the challenge will face a range of issues. Increased numbers of higher education students in colleges are likely to put pressures on managers to cope with the application of staff terms and conditions across a broader range of provision than ever. Resources will have to reflect the demands of higher level study and, where large numbers of higher level students are present, there may also be pressures to provide a student experience comparable to that offered by larger higher education institutions.
However, comparability does not mean that experience has to be the same.
New students attracted into higher education via their local college are unlikely to approach the experience with the same needs or expectations as their peers who choose to study a traditional full-time three-year degree.
Many will combine study with employment, requiring flexible delivery times and methods. They may have a commitment to their local area or community, with family and social links they wish to preserve. It is likely that they will want to study in a vocational field with direct links to work and career, possibly in disciplines in which many higher education institutions do not have direct experience.
With that in mind, there are also challenges for funding bodies. In the debate about wider participation in higher education, the thousands of part-time learners should not be forgotten. In addition to those studying for honours or foundation degrees, there are many studying on the unfortunately named "non-prescribed higher education", funded by the Learning and Skills Council. They deserve recognition for their efforts, in terms of the rigour of what they study and the value of the experience they gain.
The experience of higher education that these students want will be different from the traditional model, but must be no less demanding or valued. I believe colleges can respond with confidence. The majority of the students who stand to benefit study with us already. We owe it to them to make it work.
John Widdowson is principal and chief executive of New College, Durham.