Further education in the UK could learn from the US's community spirit, argues David Melville.
There has hardly been a year in the past decade when commentators have not begun their polemics with phrases such as "further education faces unprecedented challenges" and the like. Is this true at the moment? Up to a point, but what is clearly the case is that the environment in which further education pitches for its future success is changing more rapidly than it ever has since incorporation in the Nineties.
This offers a major opportunity for the redefinition - and with it a major rehabilitation - of the further education sector. It offers, in equal measure, the risk of failure, the potential dismemberment of the sector and loss of core functions - or at least, a further slide down the ladder of esteem in the education firmament.
Further education moved into the sunshine in 1997. When Tony Blair said his priority was "education, education, education", we were confident that the middle of those three was further education. We also knew the sunshine would soon be replaced with a spotlight and we were not surprised when it turned into a searchlight. Greater resources led to greater expectations and scrutiny from successive ministers, who saw a real purpose for further education in their educational plans and aspirations for the nation.
In the past ten years, the sector has delivered on any objective measures, whether these are basic skills or higher education; A levels or Btecs; dramatic growth or retrenchment. Further education was inspired by the Higginson, Tomlinson and Kennedy reports to embrace IT, inclusive learning and widening participation; it rose to the challenge despite a meagre resource base and appalling real estate - all of which means that it is a sector that does everything.
Herein lies the question of sustainability, which tempts into the arena those wishing to restructure the post-compulsory education map. The only answer for a sustainable future for the further education sector is a confident and clear identity, which brings with it an argument for the coherence of its comprehensive offer.
So what are the environmental factors that appear to be shaping the future in which further education must find its place? I would cite the Tomlinson report on 14-to-19 education, the new Qualifications and Curriculum Authority qualifications framework and vocational higher education.
Tomlinson will lead to the need for more vocational programmes, many of which will be delivered by further education. If these schemes succeed, they will increase post-16 staying-on rates, in effect raising the full-time education leaving age to 18.
This is not a pipe dream. It parallels the situation in the rest of the developed world. The new QCA framework has the potential to fit the pieces of the academic and vocational qualifications jigsaw together and embrace higher education qualifications within it. This is likely to have the biggest impact in vocational higher education. All of this points to the need for institutions that can offer vocational progression while providing a range of levels and subject choices that span the academic and vocational spectrum.
The arguments are similar in concept, if not in detail, for adult learners.
Last month, a number of us spent a weekend with colleagues from the community colleges in the State University of New York system. The meeting was inspired by Alan Johnson who, while Further Education Minister, had been impressed by the ownership of and esteem for these colleges in local communities. They deliver and award a two-year associate degree that is widely accepted as full credit by the universities in the SUNY system and those out of the state, including Ivy League institutions.
What surprised us, however, was that this high-profile degree is only 7 per cent of their offering. The rest of it covers the familiar further education territory of basic skills, second-chance education, vocational programmes and lifelong learning. The interesting feature of their marketing is that they are not coy about presenting themselves in terms of the highest levels of their student achievement, the associate degree, while successfully providing for their full range of students. The US system does not map directly on to our system, but Tomlinson takes a step closer with the advanced diploma. Equally, rising tuition fees will produce some of the parallel economic forces leading to a desire for more college higher education.
What does lead us towards a future that will help to define the further education sector is the idea of higher-further education systems with elements of common governance, based on local or sub-regional concepts of what needs to be done collectively. Of equal importance is the ability of colleges to award their own higher education at QCA levels 4 and 5, which includes the foundation degree.
Besides providing the ultimate progression and aspiration point in the further education college environment, it is the only way in which we can secure the future of this employer-engaged qualification. The same argument can be applied for one-year, level 4 higher education qualifications that, if also delivered and awarded by further education colleges, can form an equally important and sustainable part of vocational higher education participation.
As David Robertson, head of higher education policy at Liverpool John Moores University, has noted, the success of such qualifications worldwide lies in their college rather than university ownership. The identity of the sector with opportunity for all to study and progression to higher education levels follows from this.
Could all this happen? I believe it can, provided that the momentum of changes is seized and there is boldness and belief in colleges, the Government, funding councils and accreditation bodies.
David Melville is vice-chancellor of the University of Kent and chair of the Universities Vocational Awards Council. He is former chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council for England.