Barring a last-minute hitch in the House of Lords, the Further Education and Training Bill looks likely to receive Royal Assent. For the first time, further education colleges will have the power to award significant qualifications - foundation degrees - in their own right. The Government and the Association of Colleges claim that the new Act will allow a meaningful and efficient expansion of higher education provision that poses no threat to universities. Having fought hard to neuter some of the Bill's more far reaching implications, universities are not convinced. They are concerned that quality will be compromised, degree progression will be stymied and that competition between further and higher education will torpedo collaboration. Are their fears justified?
Certain safeguards have been put in place: the Privy Council will grant foundation-degree-awarding powers only for a probationary period and only to colleges with experience of delivering higher education qualifications for a minimum of four years; and colleges must detail how they will ensure that students have the opportunity to progress to other degrees. The Bill's supporters also suggest that few colleges will seek enhanced status, that the market for foundation degrees is big enough to accommodate both further and higher education and that universities and university colleges are being alarmist, all the better to be monopolistic.
Despite their protestations, the Bill, albeit amended, contains dangers for higher education and the status of foundation degrees. The first is that a qualification still in its infancy will flirt with devaluation if it becomes largely synonymous with further education and if universities cease to participate, which they may well do if the incentives are reduced.
Equally, if higher education institutions are not involved in the design or delivery of foundation degrees, progression to honours will be less straightforward.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the new Act will create competitors where once there were partners. The suggestion from the head of the AoC last year that universities might "wish to withdraw from this area and to focus on research and postgraduate work" makes explicit the danger.
In truth, it is difficult to see why higher education institutions should welcome a piece of legislation that offers them more competition for little reward, that transforms collaborators into rivals and that might have wholly unintended consequences for degree progression and widening participation.