FE Focus: Freedom to steer their own course

November 12, 2004

The LSC is looking at ways for colleges to break free from unequal alliances.

Further education colleges could be freed from having to rely on universities to award the higher education qualifications they offer, Caroline Neville, the Learning and Skills Council's director of learning, has suggested. The LSC should "explore all the options" to allow mixed economy colleges to have more autonomy as they seek to provide more higher education courses.

Neville, a former college principal who was on the board of the Higher Education Funding Council for England for five years before joining the LSC, says there is a danger that the higher education work of some colleges is being hampered by their dependence on dominant university partners. This could mean that efforts to develop higher education that is more responsive to local employer and student needs is being stifled, she says.

"Colleges need to have more autonomy or at least more equal partnerships.

We should not take a position where there is a need for higher education locally and there is a barrier to that development," she says.

Neville believes the situation could be solved by seeking alternative accreditation arrangements for colleges that want to break free from such partnerships.

"Accreditation of higher education can be delivered in a number of ways. It can be institution-led, or by a third party. We need to explore all options," she says. "It would be helpful for significant providers of higher education to be masters of their own destiny."

On the face of it, allowing colleges to break free from partnerships appears to contradict the general policy direction for higher education in further education.

Neville acknowledges that most colleges that have fewer higher education students and resources than the big mixed economy group institutions will still need partnerships. Some may even join "federal clusters" of institutions providing higher education locally to ensure they have the necessary critical mass, she says.

Another consideration is a shared initiative, the "joint progression strategy", which the LSC is working on with Hefce. This could see the LSC and its local branches becoming more involved in the development of higher education at a local and regional level.

The main objective is to increase the rate of progression to higher education of students gaining level 3 vocational qualifications. A steering group, chaired by LSC chief executive Mark Haysom and Hefce chief executive Sir Howard Newby, has been set up, and held its first meeting in September.

Neville sees an opportunity here for building up apprenticeships in addition to other vocational qualifications as a gateway to foundation degrees. But if this is to happen, there will need to be strong partnerships between further and higher education institutions, irrespective of whether some colleges have the option to plough their own higher education furrow.

"The most important thing is that there are logical pathways for young people and adults to progress along that are supported by employers. That is what is different about the joint progression strategy - it's looking at how the community can access higher education, as well as making it more straightforward for further and higher education to deliver what the community needs."

Neville admits there are already good examples of further and higher education working well together, but these are "a function of geography, rather than necessarily the particular skills needs of the local community".

Although she insists that the LSC does not have a planning role in higher education, she expects local LSCs to play a more active part in ensuring that higher education needs in their area are met.

"There is no blueprint here. It is about making sure you have the right provision for local needs," she says.

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