Arguments to widen the competition

December 15, 2006

In the time it took one university to validate a foundation degree, 4 million people in India and China gained degrees of their own. The institution concerned no doubt had exceptional reasons for the delay, but 52 weeks is a long time in a fast-moving economy.

Some universities find it difficult to move quickly. This alone is a good reason to change the way in which foundation degrees are validated. The change will come if Clause 19 of the Further Education and Training Bill becomes law. This week, the Bill started its passage through Parliament.

But in an article published in The Times Higher on December 8, Drummond Bone, the president of Universities UK, argued that colleges should not have the power to award their own foundation degrees.

He based this on three arguments:

* The new qualifications could lose credibility if awarded by colleges

* Universities might refuse to work in partnership with colleges or to recognise their qualifications

* Colleges should not be wasting their time with higher level skills.

None of these arguments stands up to close scrutiny. The Privy Council and Quality Assurance Agency will set high standards before they give individual colleges such powers - and rightly so. Employers and students already make choices between degrees from different universities. Why not widen their choice?

Then there is the question of university withdrawal. There are many higher education institutions with strong foundation degree partnerships with colleges. The universities are committed to widening participation and employer engagement. It is difficult to envisage colleges in these partnerships wanting to change the validation arrangements. It is also difficult to see the universities pulling up the drawbridge in a fit of pique.

By opposing change, universities will risk appearing to be defending a monopoly by making alarmist predictions; only a few larger colleges are likely to want to have foundation degree-awarding powers. Only a few will have the capacity or student numbers to pass the Privy Council's tests.

Even so, the change is important. For mixed-economy colleges, validation will end the absurdity of having to form multiple university partnerships to offer a range of courses to students. Validation will make innovation easier in the effort to meet employer needs.

A central argument for college validation is that it will create a bit of healthy competition. It might encourage some universities to move a little faster and to desist from increased validation charges in the second or third year of a partnership. If some institutions wish to withdraw from this area and to focus on research and postgraduate work, then it might lead to a stronger system overall.

The bigger picture on foundation degrees is that the education system needs a better skilled population. This implies a significant expansion of part-time higher education for those in work.

There are colleges with decades of experience in higher level work, with 50 having foundation degrees in their portfolio. It is hardly a case of mission drift if these colleges want to do more, to do it better and to do it quicker.

This is the reason why Clause 19 of the Bill deserves support in Parliament. Students will benefit if the university sector looks to the future rather than spending time defending institutional privilege.

John Brennan is chief executive of the Association of Colleges.

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