FE Focus: No assist from hotshots

November 12, 2004

The uneven balance of power between further and higher education partners frustrates colleges, a new survey shows. Tony Tysome writes.

Many further education colleges are uneasy in their relationships with higher education partners and would welcome the chance to have their foundation degrees accredited by an awarding body instead.

Colleges responding to a national survey on foundation degrees conducted by The Times Higher and the Association of Colleges complained of unfair top slicing of funding by their higher education partner, as well as mismanagement, disorganised validation arrangements and "minimal" marketing of new courses. Some blamed their partner for foundation degrees failing to recruit and having to be axed.

Of 52 colleges that took part in the survey, 48 said their foundation degrees were run in partnership with a higher education institution. Of these, 56 per cent said the relationship with their partner was "open to improvement", while 40 per cent described the relationship as "very effective" and only 4 per cent said it was "ineffective". Other comments revealed that there are common causes of concern that could be hindering the development of foundation degrees.

Many colleges said that having funding for foundation degrees channelled via a higher education partner was an inequitable and unsatisfactory arrangement. One commented: "Twenty-five per cent top slice on funding seems high for what we get." Another said: "It is difficult to see any benefit in funnelling funds through higher education providers. Our experience is that they are slow, inefficient and inflexible. Marketing has been minimal." A third college added: "In franchises, different higher education institutions offer different proportions of funding. Some funding is very low, and we just break even or run at a loss."

The balance of power between further and higher education partners frequently frustrates colleges. The higher education institution has the upper hand by being in control of accreditation of courses as well as the funding. Forty-six per cent of colleges said their foundation degree arrangements were led by a higher education partner; just 13 per cent said they were led by a further education institution. Forty-four per cent said they had an equal partnership.

One respondent wrote: "We had to do a significant amount of work to organise our 'lead partner'. The accreditation process was appalling - patronising and very top down. We felt 'done to' rather than 'done with'."

Some colleges suggested that their hands were tied when things began to go wrong and blamed their higher education partner for the failure of a course.

When asked for the reason for discontinuing a foundation degree, one college said: "Arrangements with the validating university were disorganised, and promised materials were not available on time." A second cited "poor recruitment due to mismanagement by higher education provider".

The chance to have at least part-time foundation degrees accredited by an awarding body rather than by a university - a move proposed by the government-appointed foundation degree task force - was backed by 58 per cent of colleges. Nearly all of them backed such a move out of a desire for more autonomy, and 57 per cent thought this would give foundation degrees more credibility with employers.

The key concern of those against the proposal was that it might create a two-tier system.

The setting of top-up fees for foundation degrees is a decision more likely to be made by a higher education institution. Forty-five per cent of respondents said their partner university would set fees, while 39 per cent of colleges said they would make the decision.

In most cases (69 per cent), a fees policy has yet to be set for foundation degrees. Of those that had decided, charging between £1,200 and £3,000 a year for full-time courses was the most popular option. Only 4 per cent said they wanted to charge the top rate of £3,000 for all courses.

The survey appears to show that foundation degree graduates find it easier to progress to an honours degree than to get a better job. More than three-quarters of colleges said graduates were able to gain places on a full-time degree course. Of these, more than half said progression to a full-time course at a partner university was possible without a bridging programme, while 44 per cent said a bridging programme was needed.

Nearly a quarter said graduates could also progress to a full-time degree course at a range of universities with a bridging programme. A further 12 per cent said several universities allowed progression without a bridging course.

Of the 81 per cent that said progression to a part-time degree course was possible, 60 per cent said this could be done through a partner university without a bridging programme.

Nineteen per cent said places on part-time degree courses were available at a range of universities with a bridging programme, and 10 per cent said several universities did not require bridging to offer a part-time place.

Foundation degrees appear to have comparatively less currency in the job market. Fifty-six per cent said a foundation degree helped graduates progress in the workplace in the public sector, and just 46 per cent said foundation degrees improved job prospects in the private sector.

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