Collaboration is the future

May 1, 1998

"PLUS ca change, plus c'est la meme chose" was possibly not an expression used by Tony Blair in his recent speech to the French National Assembly in Paris. But it is a fitting starting point for my response to Michael Scott's university/college relationships arguments (THES, March ).

The world now is a very different place from the one we shared as I began my job as chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council, yet the debate on university/college relationships has still to catch up. Eighteen months on, I still recognise the importance of increased collaboration and the real possibility of further mergers. However, much has changed.

Further education is centre stage in the government's vision of a lifelong learning society, a role acknowledged in the recent green paper. Further education is the majority education and training provider at post-16, the only comprehensive platform for lifelong learning and the core of the nation's skills strategy. We are truly entering the "learning age", and that is one where further and higher education work in true partnerships, not in the conceptual higher education imperialism of the past.

The starting point for forging the new kinds of partnership specifically needed for this new age must be delivery of a better service for students. But I was even more sceptical 18 months ago about the inherent dangers for this vision if we rely on a single, nationally imposed model to deliver it.

A federal model with a regional university assuming quality control and financial management of its family of members, notwithstanding the notion of retaining the unique identity of each of its parts through college academic principals and local advisory boards, does little to assuage my concerns.

Meeting student needs will depend on finding the most appropriate local arrangements that can deliver progression, wider participation, student-centred learning, centres of excellence, and bridging the skills gap.

This means we will have to re-examine the relationship, with the emphasis on increasing transparency at the boundaries - achieved predominantly by close collaboration. Further education has shown itself to be in a position to respond positively to the challenges ahead through widening participation and through its responsiveness to the needs of individuals and employers. The importance of literacy and numeracy in supporting lifelong learning has gained new emphasis. Colleges will have an important role in delivery of these basic skills, often through the New Deal programme, the University for Industry or one of the new skills centres of excellence. Institutions will need to innovate so that their provision remains relevant, and collaborative provision has obvious potential for ensuring flexibility and responsiveness.

Colleges are uniquely placed to deliver qualifications on the scale that will be needed to achieve the government's new targets, particularly when the promised 500,000 new students enter the system. Further education is increasingly the first choice of able, well-qualified adults - first choice not just in the well-trodden territory to level 3, but also for higher education programmes, especially sub-degree.

The Kennedy report identified the strategies needed to reach those currently excluded from further education. Inevitably these individuals will never reach higher education unless we do implement the Kennedy agenda. That must involve pathways leading from little current achievement through to higher education qualifications. The challenge for real partnerships to deal with this issue is immense.

The social mix in the further education sector contrasts starkly with higher education: 60 per cent of 16 to 18-year-olds study in the further education sector. Higher education institutions cannot meet the government's requirements to widen participation without new and more effective partnerships with colleges.

Funds have been made available for further education rationalisation and collaboration, and the government is setting the "culture" for collaboration. The government has refocused and neatly renamed the competitiveness fund a collaboration fund, with Pounds 25.5 million available in 1998-99. Of this, Pounds 15.5 million is to support collaboration between colleges and other partners such as higher education institutions and Pounds 10 million is to promote college mergers in support of increased efficiency and effectiveness in the further education sector. Of this Pounds 10 million, Pounds 7.5 million will support rationalisation proposals - proposals from two or more colleges working together for capital expenditure leading to revenue savings. About 10 per cent of the total - Pounds 2.5 million - has been set aside to support mergers.

Although funding clearly plays a significant role in encouraging a culture placing a premium on new partnerships, it is not the only factor. Merger is an option but to achieve real benefits for students, it has to be undertaken for positive educational reasons, transcending the gains of collaboration and partnership short of merger.

The challenge is to look creatively for new ways to forge new kinds of partnership that bring synergy between our sectors in this new learning age.

David Melville is chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council.

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