A Victorian idea that could do with restoration

March 30, 2007

Institutions offering academic and vocational courses deserve more autonomy, say Bruce Macfarlane and Neil Garrod.

Controversy surrounds the Government's proposal to allow further education colleges the right to award foundation degrees. Critics of the new Further Education and Training Bill argue that such a step would undermine the distinctive roles of further and higher education. The former, so the argument goes, should provide vocational training in work-based skills. The latter ought to focus on developing students with higher knowledge and the ability to think critically. But do such sharp differences in purpose still exist, and would eroding the divide further really be such a retrograde step?

What has been overlooked is that much of what we now think of as "higher"

education was what we used to call "further" education not so long ago.

Higher education has always grown on the basis of absorbing from "below". A comparatively recent example is the assimilation of nurse education into universities in the 1990s. The largest single subject area in higher education is now business and management. But modern business degrees date only from the mid-1960s and were largely nurtured by the former polytechnics. The fact that they can now be found throughout the sector shows that modern universities are as concerned with "vocationalism" as further education. While giving colleges the right to validate their own foundation degrees might appear a radical step, more than 12 per cent of higher education provision is already in this sector.

Universities are proud to trumpet their longevity. Yet this marketing puff masks the fact that well over two thirds were formed after 1960. Several were previously defined as "further" education providers, especially specialist institutions in the arts and hospitality areas. We might now think of universities such as Sheffield and Birmingham as bastions of the "old" university sector, but when they started life many of these Victorian civics supplied practical, technical and vocational training to an aspirant middle class. They were accused of offering Mickey Mouse courses and academic standards in much the same way as some newer universities are today. Despite such criticism, they did an important job in widening participation, as the former polytechnics were to do again in the 20th century.

There are, of course, differences between further and higher education, but arguably many of these are rooted more in ideology than in the student experience. While the practical differences may be withering, the bureaucratic barriers remain in place. This is reinforced by different funding bodies (except in Scotland) and audit arrangements. The research assessment exercise pushes the sectors further apart. But the failure of attempts to expand participation in the 21st century marks the need for a fresh approach to post-compulsory education that integrates rather than separates.

Further and higher education partnerships are a step forward, but full integration of post-compulsory education within a single institution is a growing model internationally. So-called dual-sector institutions are found in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK. Thames Valley University is a prime example, containing everything from a 14-19 academy to a graduate school. The idea of a dual-sector institution is to make progression as easy as possible for the student, removing the fear factor of "going to university".

But being a dual is not easy. Some institutions have acquired this identity through redesignation of title. For these institutions, staff research and development is a challenge. Duals formed through merger of a university and a further education college, such as Thames Valley, must forge a new and distinctive identity. They must bring together often sharply contrasting cultures with different understandings of the nature of academic work. All duals face challenges around academic contracts and governance. They also need to rethink their structures to maximise student progression.

The dual model may seem ideal, but it is faced with bureaucratic obstacles.

One example of the former is that while duals have degree-awarding powers like any other university, they must go cap in hand to external bodies to gain recognition for their further education award qualifications. From our own research, we have found a sense of frustration among duals in several parts of the world faced with layers of sector-specific red tape.

Politicians may lend rhetorical support for "seamlessness", but government policy often appears to pull the other way.

Ironically, giving some further education colleges foundation degree-awarding powers might undermine the work of duals. This would lead to a situation where further education colleges could award higher education qualifications but, perversely, universities would still be unable to award nationally recognised further education qualifications.

Allowing them this reciprocal freedom would be a logical step and one that might more radically renew the civic purpose of the modern university.

Bruce Macfarlane is professor of education and Neil Garrod is deputy vice-chancellor, Thames Valley University.

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