Colleges look to Open for higher education lifeline

AoC considers options as cuts and cap on student numbers threaten degree provision. Hannah Fearn reports

March 2, 2010

Further education colleges warned last year that funding for degrees delivered in their classrooms could dry up as universities hunkered down in the recession.

Several months on, with the predicted budget cuts a reality, there is evidence that the relationship between universities and further education colleges has suffered as predicted.

Chris Morecroft, principal of Worcester College of Technology and chair of the Association of Colleges’ (AoC) Higher Education in Further Education Group, said the attitude shown by universities to colleges was that “we are a bit strapped at the moment, so we’re not really bothered about validating your courses”.

He said this posed “a great danger” to alternative routes to higher education.

Ann Cotterill, director of higher education at Warwickshire College, said that colleges funded indirectly through universities were the most vulnerable.

“The difficulty is that when there is a lack of funds in the system, universities will want to protect their own. It is very difficult for colleges that want to offer smaller pockets of provision to manage that,” she said.

However, larger colleges that are funded directly are also facing difficulties, partly as a result of the Government’s decision to cap student numbers.

“Because there is a lack of growth in the university sector, we’re also unable to grow our provision with them,” Dr Cotterill said.

To address the problem, the AoC has opened negotiations with The Open University in an attempt to come up with a more sustainable model.

Mr Morecroft said that action was vital because of the role colleges play in widening access to higher education.

“We have a much higher proportion of people who come from widening-participation postcodes [than universities],” he said.

The AoC hopes that the OU will work with colleges to develop “blended-learning” courses, where students can work towards degree-level qualifications within college environments rather than independently at home.

As the OU is dedicated to flexible modes of study, the AoC hopes that it may be able to sustain long-term relationships with colleges where other universities have not.

Mr Morecroft said that if enough colleges formed partnerships with the institution, provision of higher education in this way would become “second nature”.

Carole Baume, head of planning, development and student services at the OU, said: “We have been in discussions with the AoC to explore ways in which we may be able to work together to widen participation in higher education.

“There is a clear synergy between our organisations and we’re now at a stage of scoping the opportunities a partnership could present.”

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