A joint cake is better than a slice

March 1, 1996

There used to be a binary line between one type of advanced education and another. With the re-creation of the polytechnics and some colleges of higher education into universities, the line has shifted but where is it now? It might come to be between research and teaching universities. Others will look for it between the remaining colleges of higher education and the universities. But if these are lines they are thin.

The true divide is between institutions funded primarily by the further education funding councils and those funded by the higher education funding councils. All sorts of forces are at work to challenge this new binary line scarcely before it has been writ large or thick.

First, there is image and size. In many big towns we are experiencing college mergers. They are taking place for a variety of reasons, mostly to do with achieving a comprehensive service and rationalisation. How long will it be before every town with a population of over 100,000 has a large community college?

The Americanisation of British further education has been a faltering trend, but trend it is. Some colleges are already as big as some higher education institutions. Second there is financing. The critical difference between further and higher education is in the provision of student support and the differing approaches of the funding councils. But for how long can two types of convergence - north and south of the binary line - be considered separately? If vouchers are to come, how realistic is it to have a Marks and Spencer voucher and a British Home Stores version. The merger of funding councils must be on the cards at some time.

In an era of vouchers any funding council will have a changed role and maybe no role at all. What is true of infrastructure support could also be true of student loans. Whatever the problems of its reputation and political provenance there is no good reason why the work of the Student Loans Company should be confined to students in one type of institution rather than another.

Third there is technology. Unfortunately, the architects of new learning - rather like the builders of the great cathedrals - are high on vision but low on technique. The architects of new technology are high on technique but lack vision to create a palace of learning.

Fourth there is modernisation and other curriculum reforms that put the customer first. While there is no "average" student, the client groups of further education and higher education are coming to look the same. Access courses, federations and franchising are already taking us to the United States model of the relationship between further and higher education.

It may be that the further education course fulfils the version of the Woolwich speech - community centred, part-time study, progression from non-advanced to advanced - in a way that the polytechnics rarely did.

All this amounts to saying that if the binary line exists it exists because it is imposed and we accept it. It is imposed to produce cheaper products. Two things follow. First all the talk of "mission drift" is an unwarranted interference in the realities of the market place. Even in the post-Nolan, post-Greenbury setting, it is a funny way to stimulate entrepreneurialism and growth. Second, further and higher education have a common agenda, purpose and problems. Our representative bodies should combine to argue for a bigger cake ration rather than about the size of the slices.

Keith Scribbins is chairman of the board of the Colleges Employers Forum and of South Bristol College.

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