A more equal relationship

Tanya Ovenden-Hope welcomes the Leitch report's model for higher education provision in further education colleges

April 16, 2009

When is a leech not a leech? When it is a report. The 2006 Leitch report on the UK's future skills needs may be regarded by some academics as parasitical, but for those delivering higher education courses in further education colleges, it has injected new blood into the field.

Higher education courses have been taught in further education colleges for several decades, typically in the guise of post-compulsory education and training (including the Postgraduate Certificate of Education/Certificate of Education) contracted out by local higher education institutions. The relationship has not been complex, but neither has it been equal.

The contracted-out model does not enable further education colleges to create and quality-assure the higher education programmes they deliver. However, the real stumbling block for higher education-validated (as opposed to contracted-out) teacher training in colleges is not the process of validation, but the requirements of Ofsted inspection. This exemplifies the disparity between the higher education provision offered by universities and within that offered by further education colleges.

The model inspired by Leitch is based on a more equal relationship. The university supports the further education college in utilising (or appointing) appropriately qualified staff to write rigorous foundation degrees underpinned by the Quality Assurance Agency's benchmarks, linked to the National Qualifications Framework and articulated in the university's programmes.

Quality is assured by programme committee meetings attended by members of the university and the appointment of external examiners. Assessment boards and panels also involve university representation, and the college's provision will undergo an Institutional Quality Enhancement Review by the QAA designed to ensure that standards are maintained.

While there are clear differences in the degree of academic freedom seen in the two types of institution, at the same time the partnership between them engenders palpable hope for successful academic engagement.

Many academically driven teachers in further education colleges who are striving to improve practice and outcomes for learners, while perhaps influencing social policy along the way, suspect that they have been constrained by outdated perceptions about their ability. Perceptions which, in turn, may have had a negative impact on their access to funding.

But recent developments promise greater opportunities than ever before for further education staff who are struggling for academic recognition.

Moreover, these advances have helped to foster a community of scholarly activity. Erudite engagement and research has become open and desirable in colleges.

Universities are increasingly recognising the contribution made to educational knowledge and understanding by the research undertaken by further education lecturers (and school teachers), as can be seen in the Higher Education Learning Partnership at the University of Plymouth's Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning, for example.

So what happens next? Will my high hopes for academe in further education be met? Some further education institutions that feel confident about taking the next step in terms of autonomy have followed the foundation degree awarding powers route. Others that have established mutually rewarding relationships with their accrediting higher education institutions may choose to ignore this path for the time being.

I remain excited about the future of academic opportunities for colleagues teaching outside higher education institutions, and look forward to a growth in scholarly activity as the research culture beds into further education colleges to a greater degree than ever before. Let the lifeblood of education flow.

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