Blind date leads to a canny union

August 31, 2001

Alan Marsh explains how he turned matchmaker between FE and HE in the fifth of our series from the grass roots.

"Go get into higher education! It's further education's future," my head of department told me on a morning when the Sisyphean challenge of extracting funding units from the Further Education Funding Council must have seemed particularly daunting. I perked up, not used to hearing the words "future" and "further education" in such close proximity for quite some time. I have wanted to expand in that direction for years - and for sound educational reasons. Weymouth College has an excellent track record in my field - performing arts - with facilities and resources that exceed many higher education courses, and a network of industrial links through our professional theatre programme, which serves South Dorset with a full annual touring schedule.

I knew the demand was out there, but had already spent many frustrating months trying to negotiate franchises with our two most immediate universities. One was simply out to consume us, like some ravenous factory ship - we would have lost all identity and autonomy in that "partnership"; the other was very positive and friendly and we bumbled along for a few meetings before they woke up to the fact that a Higher National Diploma run through Edexcel would involve dealing with an organisation with whom they had no established relationship. They got cold feet and the plans collapsed. I reminded my head of department of these demoralising experiences, but he just passed me a map and we drew a slightly wider circle to see which other university we might approach. This is always the point at which the advantages of living in a coastal town suddenly disappear as half your circle shows up blue. But we had to persevere in our quest for a willing partner - I had seen too many quick-fit HND courses (run on a stand-alone basis from within further education colleges) that had no right to claim their students were getting a higher education experience. My own students had reported back from several places they had "progressed" to, thoroughly disenchanted with both the teaching and the narrowness of the horizons they were being invited to explore. Higher education has to be a stretching, challenging, stimulating experience, and a small college needs to be guided and nurtured by a sympathetic university if students are not to be short changed. I have not been prepared to compromise on this, however pressing the financial imperatives. We got off the map and got on the phone. A week later we were being shown round the performing arts facilities at the University of Plymouth by the academic partnerships manager and a theatre degree course leader who I just knew I could work with and trust. It had been a bit of a blind date but now it felt exciting as we talked about putting this partnership together.

The gargantuan tomes that are the academic regulations and articles of registration of a large university are not light reading, but the very bureaucratic density of what I waded through offered the depth of confidence we need in processes and procedures, now that real students have started to materialise. And so it has proved. There is not a situation or a contingency to do with the recruitment, enrolment, teaching, assessment and grading of students that has not happened somewhere within the university. As with the application of legal precedence, we are guided by others' judgements, others' prior experiences, and I can save hours of distressing argument with a student who misses yet another deadline by pointing out that "printer failure" does not appear on the list of "valid extenuating circumstances" for late submission and there is nothing I can do about it. In this respect, the university acts as a benign Cerberus - benign to us, that is - and why keep a dog and bark yourself?

We have just awarded HNDs to our first cohort - ten students ranging in age from 20 to 43, and I believe that if our type and level of course had not been there, at least half of them would not have had any sort of higher education experience at all. As it is, six of them are going on to complete the degree at Plymouth (a mixture here of entries into years two and three, according to ability and academic confidence).

Of course there are problems - we have had to convince an obtuse business studies lecturer on the validation panel that for performing arts students a module in "voice" had any academic validity at all, and at times the old guard at the university do feel the need to dust off their gowns and wave them at us imperiously from their upper windows. But there are not many old guard at Plymouth, and the direct dealings we have had with the staff in the curriculum area have been open-minded and generous in the best traditions of genuine scholarship.

Weymouth is more than two hours by road from Plymouth - not really a problem for the three or four major meetings of the year, but my students feel frustrated, I know, to be full card-carrying members of the union at Plymouth but to be unable to get to most of the social events. However, we have just been guided through a full Quality Assurance Agency review and come out of that, and our external examiner's full report, has given us a real sense of pride in what we have achieved as teachers ourselves and on behalf of our students. We have not felt that as members of the further education sector for some time.

My head of department has since disappeared again into the FEFC and Learning and Skills Council labyrinths, desperately searching for units. But at least he has put his map away.

Alan Marsh is head of performing arts at Weymouth College.

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