Analysis: Widening the gateway to higher plane

May 3, 2002

Colleges are being pushed to form links with higher education but is it an initiative too far for an already stretched sector, asks Tony Tysome

City and Islington College acting principal Frank McLoughlin was pleased to find his institution held by the government as a shining example of quality and innovation.

In a speech at a Social Market Foundation seminar, Margaret Hodge, the higher education and lifelong learning minister, cited the college's partnership with University College London as a role model for the rest of the sector.

But the minister also used the occasion to reiterate her concerns about standards in further education. She quoted for a second time a National Audit Office report published last year that says that college students had only a 50:50 chance of achieving their qualification aims.

"Of course for some there may be a jolly good explanation for their failing to succeed. But you can't explain away 50 per cent on changed circumstances, new aspirations or switching courses," she said.

Ms Hodge suggested that colleges should take a new direction towards more specialisation and playing to their strengths, and into closer partnerships with universities and schools such as the one established between City and Islington and UCL to create a new sixth-form centre.

To many further education heads the emerging themes in government policy for the sector seem to have presented a paradox. Ministers say standards in colleges are not up to scratch yet they want further education to take on more higher education. Further education should be a gateway to education and training for everyone, from the unqualified school-leaver to professionals wishing to update their skills; but it should also become more specialised.

Mr McLoughlin has pointed out another inconsistency.

While City and Islington is something of a success story in many ways, it also shares with the rest of the sector a significant handicap. It is suffering from a staff recruitment crisis - the result, it would seem, of underfunding compared with schools and universities, and the steady erosion of college lecturers' morale through growing workloads combined with negative comments from ministers and government officials.

Mr McLoughlin said: "I do not want to join in the criticism of FE standards. There is a big debate about how these statistics are presented. The GCSE pass rate is considered to be reasonable at 50 per cent, yet FE is doing better than that picking up students who failed the first time around.

"If you continue to throw mud at the sector, you can end up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy."

As part of her campaign to bring about change and improve standards in further education, Ms Hodge has launched a countrywide debate on the subject. Many college heads, however, have echoed Mr McLoughlin's concerns and called for more funding and less criticism to help them achieve the government's targets.

The Association of Colleges, which represents most college heads, has been particularly critical of the government's approach. It has challenged the figures on which Ms Hodge has based her arguments, and is calling for a review of both the further and higher education inspection and quality review systems to take on board the colleges' special circumstances and roles.

The NAO report referred to by ministers says that between 1994-95 and 1998-99, levels of student retention in FE colleges stayed more or less the same at 85 per cent. But levels of achievement in the same period steadily improved from 65 per cent to 74 per cent. The report acknowledges that these improvements have been made against a backdrop of significant growth and change, with student numbers increasing by 70 per cent.

The NAO comes up with its 50:50 "success" rate for students gaining the qualifications they set out for by combining the retention rate with the achievement rate. By this measure, it concludes that the proportion of qualification aims embarked upon that were successfully achieved in 1998-99 was 56 per cent for 16 to 18-year-olds and 51 per cent for mature students.

AoC officials have disputed the significance of this calculation. AoC chief executive David Gibson said: "I understand that something like 50 per cent of school pupils gain a GCSE pass grade A to C. If you factored in the 9 per cent truancy rate, you would get a worse success rate than for FE. The same kind of calculation might not put HE in such a good light, either.

"The government should put its money where its mouth is instead of complaining. For instance, education maintenance allowances (which are being piloted) have been shown to improve student retention rates in some areas by up to 20 per cent. If the government was to make them available across the country, that would significantly improve FE success rates at a stroke."

Further education heads have pointed out that more recent inspections by Ofsted have shown that college standards continue to improve. Out of 68 visits by Ofsted inspectors since it took over as further education quality watchdog last April, 92 per cent of teaching and learning was judged satisfactory or better, with 67 per cent good or outstanding.

Judith Norrington, the AoC's director of curriculum and quality, said she was concerned that a double standard was being applied to judgements on the quality of higher education in further education. Colleges felt they had been "dealt a poor hand" on the Quality Assurance Agency's approach to subject review, for instance.

While universities that had a good quality track record could benefit from a "lighter touch" regime, all colleges, irrespective of their past performance, were subjected to the full review cycle.

"Some of the rationale seems to be about being able to collect enough data so that the QAA knows the institutions properly. But colleges are being made to feel that that is their fault, which of course, it isn't," Ms Norrington said.

She argues that if further education is to take on more higher education work, then there may need to be a review not only of the inspection system but also of what constitutes higher education.

"We feel that some of the reviews are conducted in a way that expects students will be walking into a university. They do not take into account the fact that our students come from a wider age and educational level range, as well as a more varied social background," she added.

The QAA said the first 17 academic reviews of subjects in directly funded higher education in further education colleges had been completed. "All judgements so far show reviewers' confidence in standards and approval of the quality of learning opportunities," said Gillian Hayes, the QAA's head of operations for programme review.

According to Michael Thrower, principal of Northbrook College in Sussex and chairman of the Mixed Economy Group of colleges, further education does a pretty good job of delivering quality higher education despite quality assurance bureaucracy. The 16 MEG colleges have enough higher education students between them to fill a substantial size university, and achieved an average of 21 out of 24 points in QAA subject reviews last year.

He said: "Clearly, the evidence does not support what is being said about quality in colleges. The problem is that the government often ignores the basic fact that colleges are often deliver- ing to second-chance students who are studying part time.

"One of the sad things about all this is that while we had hoped to have shaken off the Cinderella image that we have had for many years, we now find we are being judged by a different set of standards from everyone else."

Jonathan Swift, City and Islington College's director of curriculum and quality, agrees with Ms Hodge that partnerships between further and higher education institutions could prove to be a key route into improving standards and provision, and widening participation. But greater focus was needed to rescue colleges from the government initiative overload that they had suffered from in the past, he said.

"One of FE's problems is that it has always been expected to respond to every socioeconomic initiative under the sun. In a lot of colleges, that has led to a situation where the sheer diversity has become virtually unmanageable. There is a danger of quality suffering from an excess of initiatives and FE feeling it has to prove itself by responding to them," he said.

David Cragg, executive director of the Birmingham and Solihull Learning and Skills Council, believes new initiatives may not be needed to bring about change. A "natural process" has already begun of colleges becoming more specialised and working in collaboration with higher education.

"Most FE colleges now have well-established relationships with HE, and I think the biggest challenge of all is to decide what model of HE we want," he said.

One possible model for further/higher education partnerships is the technology institutes that are being set up across the country. Mr Cragg is hoping to set one up in Birmingham, in an alliance between the city's universities and colleges. The institutes could provide a focus for raising standards as well as widening participation and broadening the curriculum, he says.

"Locally we are expecting there will be 50,000 more jobs in specialist technology areas. Training skilled workers to fill those jobs will not come through conventional recruitment to HE or FE, but through a whole range of hybrid courses. That will also mean a cross-sectoral endeavour that will include efforts to raise standards," he said.

Many college heads seem happy to let local LSCs forge such partnerships as part of a move towards more proactive strategic planning. Mr McLoughlin thinks this will be vital if colleges follow ministers' advice and begin to build more specialist profiles.

He said: "There is no doubt the LSC must take on more of a planning role. If it fulfils that function, then we will begin to see a combination of more specialism, adequacy of provision and higher standards."

FE college is to minister's taste

Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies is the sort of institution Margaret Hodge would like to see more of. It offers everything from basic education through to postgraduate study.
With 60 per cent of its 6,500 students on higher education courses, the college is to shift its status from a further education to a higher education institution this autumn.

But heads of the college say they are not planning to reduce the amount of further education delivered. They recognise the importance of their employer links and are clear that the strength of the college lies in its vocational specialisms - such as catering, travel, tourism, leisure, beauty therapy and childcare.

Principal Eddie McIntyre says it is a combination of this vocational focus and a "can-do culture" that has led to success while maintaining standards - last year the college scored 22 out of 24 in a QAA review of its higher education provision, and also got the best profile of grades out of all further education institutions inspected by Ofsted.

He said: "Being a specialist college gives us a big advantage. We know the industries we serve very well, as well as knowing education. We have been very focused and not directed into areas where we do not have a great deal of knowledge."

The college's higher education courses are accredited by Birmingham University but it also offers programmes at the lowest entry levels.

Some students who enrolled with few academic qualifications have gone on to masters-level study, without moving to a different institution.

This fact, combined with heavy investment in student support - including a new study support centre with a £10 million hall of residence - has helped keep demand for courses buoyant.

Income has also flowed in from overseas students.

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