In Scotland, non-degree courses offer the 'best buy' for a government shopping around to get more participation and more qualified people for the same number of places, says Tom Kelly
This has been a good year for further education. Both the Dearing report and the Garrick report for Scotland recommended priority for non-degree provision of colleges in the future expansion of higher education. The Kennedy report, Learning Works, made a compelling case for parity for further education.
Few would have foreseen the expansion of the early 1990s in full-time higher education supported by increased overall funding. This time two years' warning has been given of an intention to expand again. There will be many more decisions needed before students start to see the extra places they have been promised. Not least of the problems is that no relief is yet in sight for the cap on full-time numbers and falling unit of resource planned by the previous government.
The first hurdle is funding. Spending plans inherited by this government for further education will not sustain current levels of activity for the next two years, much less its preparation for the expansion promised by the prime minister. So far further education in Scotland has not yet been given the encouragement education secretary David Blunkett has promised colleges in England. Where will new money come from? The student loan book will have been sold and the "windfall tax" will be running out.
The promise by the prime minister to provide 500,000 extra places in just two years sounds heady. First we need to know what shares will go to the countries of the UK, to full-time and part-time provision, and what are the very different kinds of provision and qualifications on offer. It would be surprising if the boom planned by New Labour for the early 2000s concentrated principally on full-time higher education.
So far, there has been growing student demand for non-degree, first degree and postgraduate higher education. Even if the government's message about tuition contributions is finally accepted, the shift to loans-only maintenance support could be a significant deterrent. Nearly 70 per cent of students on Higher National courses in further education colleges supported by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland were assessed as having family income low enough for a nil contribution.
Further education colleges provide the first (and sometimes only) chance of higher education for large numbers of Scots and for many traditional nonparticipants. Over 40 per cent of Scots entering higher education for the first time in Scotland now do so in further education colleges. Of course, many who complete HNC or HND do go on later to degrees. There have been murmurings that some degree-awarding institutions would like to target the non-degree area for themselves. In Scotland this would be retrograde. Higher education serves quite different student needs and employer requirements.
No one is suggesting there should be any reduction in the amount of degree provision in Scotland. By respecting the missions of colleges on one side and degree-awarding institutions on the other, Scotland has achieved a balance that makes renewed expansion possible and desirable.
Further education colleges have different community links and Higher National provision in Scotland is part of an established national, modular framework of qualifications awarded by the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Over 60 per cent of the students on higher education courses in further education colleges in Scotland study part time (and the numbers are still increasing).
Even in the early 1990s era of competition and market forces, Scotland developed higher education in a collaborative way. Most links between colleges and degree-awarding institutions are articulation agreements offering students the possibility of progression from non-degree at college to degree at the university rather than "franchising" of university courses in colleges.
Non-degree courses can justly claim to be the "best buy" for government. For the same number of places you can get much more participation and more qualified people. Public funding for non-degree tuition is also about 40 per cent less expensive.
It would be starry-eyed to assume that the new expansion will be a blind contract of "here's the money - just get on with it". Education is so central to the doctrine of new Labour because it is seen to the route to employability and job opportunities. When the windfall tax runs out, it seems improbable that first claim on extra funding will be "more of the same". All the evidence for Scotland and the rest of the UK points to the greatest deficiencies in terms of intermediate and lower level qualifications. The knowledge revolution will generate a "learning society" in the UK only if learning, skills and experience are developed at "starter" or intermediate levels.
Of course specialist elites are needed to find new ways forward. But big advances need big battalions. These are much more likely to come from the ranks of non-degree higher education and nonadvanced further education. Even if school-leavers will be much more highly qualified and keener to continue study by 2002, there is still a huge task to overcome the deficiencies and opportunities denied to previous generations for whom learning was detached from jobs and training. A "right to study" for the unemployed and those in poorly paid jobs would be a much larger step forward than yet more intakes to boost the Age Participation Index for young full-time entry to higher education.
Tom Kelly is chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges.