The Standing Conference of Principals held its annual meeting in Bournemouth this week. The colleges are caught between further education colleges and schools on one side and universities on the other. Their organisation is further threatened by splits as some members achieve taught degree-awarding powers in time to be able legally to call themselves university colleges while others do not.
The fashionableness of further education under the present government, the imposition of the quality regime and the growing interest in regionalism are boxing the colleges in.
Andy Green and Norman Lucas, writing in our further education section this week, float the idea, which many (including Baroness Blackstone?) might favour, that further education colleges take over all sub-degree work while the universities concentrate on degree level and above. This would be a step towards a stratified North American system with universities gathering round themselves feeder colleges while engaging in research and advanced teaching.
All very neat. But where do SCOP's members fit in? They are not simply local colleges. Many of them have highly distinctive characters and a national position.
If the higher education colleges and institutes are required by blanket prescription to conform to thresholds, benchmarks and frameworks developed by the Quality Assurance Agency, their ability to innovate could be severely threatened. This would be serious. SCOP colleges, operating on the margins of viability, have been among the most innovative parts of the higher education system. There is a risk now of ossification. Constricting the colleges could increase that risk.