Take your partners, please

May 3, 1996

Peter Scott and Jean Bocock found a cosier learning culture in colleges offering higher education. Once, links between further and higher education were largely confined to colleges putting on access courses. Then, gingerly at first, they were allowed to offer franchised courses. Later these expanded links were consolidated into more systematic partnerships. Today all the talk is of strategic alliances, even outright mergers between further education colleges and universities.

Our research into links between further and higher education belongs to the third, partnerships, stage. When we began the two-year study in 1993 there was little information on curriculum developments at the interface between further and higher education or of the student experience of studying higher education in further education. Most studies had concentrated instead on the financial, management and organisational challenges facing partnerships. So we focused on the former, seeing the curriculum as an arena of culture change.

We distinguished four main types of provision that comprise the basis of partnerships. First access courses, sometimes relabelled foundation year courses, aiming to provide alternative pathways into higher education. These are different in kind from certificate and diploma-level courses, our second type. These are usually HNCs and HNDs which, though officially classified as higher education, have long been further education's stock-in-trade. As the Higher Education Funding Council for England notes in a recent report, over half of all diploma level work is delivered in further education.

Third come degree programmes delivered in whole or part in further education; two-plus-two schemes, joint degrees, part-time degrees and schemes in which one or more years of the course are delivered in a further education college.

Fourth, there are other forms of collaboration such as shared responsibility for continuing education, especially post-experience vocational provision.

In practice many partnerships involve more than one type and the distinctions between them may be more apparent than real. Student motivations also differ, which colours their expectations and experience. For some, the second year of an HNC is the culmination of their experience of further education; for others, it is a prelude to a degree course.

Another trend we identified is the growing acceptance of further and higher education partnerships as part of mainstream higher education, albeit still a relatively small part in terms of student numbers.

There are now as many students studying higher education in further education as there were in all the universities when the Robbins report was published in 1963. It is the system itself which has changed and with those changes have come increased acceptance of pluralism and diversity. One recent manifestation of this acceptance is the increasing number of audit and teaching quality assessment reports that focus in whole or in part on partnership provision.

Higher education in further education is distinctive. It is no longer possible to argue that it is, or should be, the same as in universities in every respect except location.

As the research suggests, there are many detailed differences - student profiles, teaching and learning strategies, institutional infrastructures - that cumulatively suggest that higher education in further education is a distinctive experience, not just a different environment.

We chose to study three partnership networks involved with degree provision because here the most interesting and potentially controversial developments were occurring. One was a long-established network involving colleges in one region, linked to a local, new university. Colleges were either teaching year 0 or 1 of degree programmes, in the past on a part-time basis, but just moving to some full-time provision as the research commenced. The courses were franchised to further education with students progressing to the university to complete their degree.

The second partnership was based on an old university, linked to seven further education colleges geographically dispersed throughout England, with the curriculum devised and taught throughout in the colleges, and validated by the university. The third partnership, involving another new university, linked colleges on a local basis (one more distant college was also involved) and encompassed both joint degrees, the early year(s) of a degree programme, and an extensive network of foundation and access courses with colleges in the immediate locality.

We found both interesting examples of synergy between further education and higher education and also tensions and misunderstandings arising from different views of the curriculum. These tensions stem from the diverse history and culture of the two sectors.

The further education curriculum has largely been externally controlled in contrast to higher education where "ownership" of the curriculum is often seen as a hallmark of quality. More recently as a result of the introduction of NVQs/GNVQs, further education's traditional emphasis on outcomes has been sharpened by a new concentration on competences.

The traditional higher education curriculum rather emphasised disciplinary and/or professional socialisation which is difficult to reduce to listed outcomes. Where HNC/D programmes are concerned tension is minimised because this area of provision shares many of the characteristics of mainstream further education. But with degree programmes serious misunderstandings can arise.

"HE-in-FE" students are very different from mainstream university students. They are mainly mature, very local and have non-standard entry qualifications. In the classes we observed the median age range was late 20s/early 30s, the range of qualifications held extremely varied, and the common characteristics social rather than academic - divorce and redundancy rather than A levels or BTEC. Typically there were socially homogenous student groups with small classes, perhaps ten or 12 and adaptable arrangements to suit the lives of students, for example, for childcare arrangements. The ethos was almost cosy.

Colleges made a real effort to acknowledge the life experiences such students bring wherever possible within the curriculum. This also meant the boundaries between academic and other forms of discourse became blurred. Also the staff were accessible in ways no longer possible in much of mainstream higher education because of expansion. Cumulatively these features provided a system of learning support that helped many students to succeed and gain confidence in their return to study.

We half expected our partnerships to collapse with, first, the cuts in tuition fees (many further and higher education partnerships had been struggling along on a fees-only basis) and, later, with the consolidation of student numbers. They survived - and even thrived.

We were impressed by their resilience. Where common purpose exists in a partnership adaptations are made with surprising success. The boundaries between further and higher education are constantly dissolving and reforming as both sectors undergo internal as well as external change.

Further and higher education partnerships can be seen by some as "life-at-the-margins", a minor and relatively unimportant area of provision. But they can equally be seen as "life-at-the-cutting-edge", an area of vital experimentation which points the way to the future.

Peter Scott and Jean Bocock co-directed the research project on partnerships based at the Centre for Policy Studies in Education at the University of Leeds.

Redrawing the Boundaries: Further/Higher Education Partnerships, available from the centre, University of Leeds, Pounds 15.

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