Tony Tysome reports on how higher education boundaries are being redrawn.
Ministers opened a Pandora's box when they set their 50 per cent participation target for higher education. They have acknowledged that further education will have to play a greater role in the delivery of higher education if the target is to stand any chance of being achieved by 2010. But civil servants are only now waking up to the full implications of this change.
Colleges that already have nearly as many higher education students as those in further education are keen to force the pace.
The Mixed Economy Group of 18 colleges, which accounts for about half of all higher education delivered in the further education sector, is riding on the impetus of the 50 per cent target to press for the kinds of changes that it has been seeking and that ministers have been resisting, for years.
Perhaps the most contentious issue is their title and status. According to Meg leaders, the rise of higher education in further education bolstered their case for becoming the next polytechnics.
Although Michael Thrower, Meg chairman and principal of Northbrook College, Sussex, admitted that the polytechnic title was not very helpful, he believed a rebranding and upgrading of the hybrid FHE colleges was overdue.
"The Meg group is emerging in the same way as the polytechnics emerged in the 1960s and 1970s from municipal and general further education colleges with a history and background of providing higher education," he said.
"But the polytechnics did not develop in terms of the new higher education in professional and technical work when they gained university status, but tended to ape the traditional universities. We are left as the only champions of that culture. Now it's a question of whether the government wants to promote that or put the brakes on."
Meg colleges have more than 25,000 (including overseas students) full-time equivalent higher education students between them - enough to fill a large university. Their student numbers and lobbying power will grow by about half again if they extend membership to the top 40 providers of higher education in further education.
But Meg's argument for radical reforms is not based on numbers alone. It is backed by a powerful ally with ambitions of its own. When the former Council for National Academic Awards was wound up in 1992, the government realised that some institutions would be left without a validating body. It asked the Open University Validation Service to take over. The OUVS embraced the CNAA ethos, which had a strong emphasis on peer review and varying levels of delegated scrutiny.
The OUVS is the validating body for many of the Meg colleges' higher education courses, some of which enjoy the maximum level of delegated authority.
The implications ran deeper, Dr Thrower suggested, when the introduction of the foundation degree was added to the equation.
He said: "For years colleges have been used to running higher national diploma courses through awarding bodies such as Edexcel. But now they find that there is a comparable qualification that requires them to go to a local higher education institution for validation. That means it is more time consuming and costly. We might argue that if we are working through an agency such as OUVS, then we should have those validation powers ourselves. That is something we are pushing for."
Kate Clarke, OUVS director, said Meg's arguments could be right. She said:
"A lot of colleges have come to us because we are seen as more objective and agnostic. We have the advantage of being both national and regional. One of my aims is to build the national network into a much stronger and more powerful organisation."
Until recently, quality assurance had proved a sticking point for the colleges' higher education aspirations. Under former chief executive John Randall, the Quality Assurance Agency tended to be critical of the general standard of higher education offered by colleges. But in the light of more visits to colleges, the QAA has changed its mind.
Gillian Hayes, the QAA's head of operations for programme review, said:
"The slant of those comments perhaps did not emphasise sufficiently that they were based on a small sample at the time. Our findings show that the vast majority of colleges are at least providing education of an acceptable standard, and some are doing better than that."
She agreed that judgements about the quality of higher education in further education should raise fundamental questions about how higher education was defined.
Dr Thrower said the government had placed itself in a situation where it could no longer ignore this. He said: "There is a lot of higher education in further education that is not the traditional model. If entry requirements are the defining element, then there are a lot of courses that would fit that criteria but are not classified as higher education. We have to set down how we accommodate all of that and whether it should be included in the 50 per cent target. In the end, we may need a new model of higher education."
The Higher Education Funding Council's attention has so far been confined to its Partnerships for Progression initiative, designed to encourage stronger links between schools, colleges and universities and to raise aspirations among people who might not have considered entering higher education. It has yet to grapple with the more difficult issue of how to fund higher education in further education, Dr Thrower said.
Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said that if funding council heads and government officials got round to considering the issue, they would realise it could mean a lot more than just redistributing resources.
He said: "We know that further education and higher education are moving closer together, but where exactly it is going in policy terms is difficult to say. No one has really thought about where it is all leading. It's one of those things that seems like a good idea at the time - like the government's 50 per cent participation target."
MEG COLLEGE HIGHER EDUCATION NUMBERS 2001
- Birmingham College of Food & Tourism 2,305
- Blackburn College 1,7
- Bradford College 2,537 (in merger talks with Bradford University)
- City Coll Manchester 501
- Croydon College 1,000
- Doncaster College 1,047
- Farnborough Coll of Technology 1,196
- Grimsby College 392
- Newcastle College 1,678
- New College Durham 872
- NE Surrey College of Technology 816
- Northbrook College 813
- Reading College 661 (merging with TVU)
- St Helens College 869
- Suffolk Coll of F & HE 1,594
- Stockport College 9 88
- Warrington Collegiate Institute 1,048 (merging HE work with Chester College of HE)
- Wigan & Leigh Coll 546
Source: Hefce (Figures do not include overseas students)