Colleges need a guiding hand

April 4, 2003

Peer evaluation can raise quality in colleges and build trust in foundation degrees, David Robertson says

The expansion of higher education is to be achieved largely in colleges, with incentives planned to stimulate demand for, and supply of, skills-intensive foundation degrees. The proportion of higher education offered by colleges is likely to double from the current 11 per cent over the next decade. Post-1992 universities will find their local markets more crowded and competitive than hitherto.

Under arrangements for foundation degrees, colleges are bound to local universities for course approval. This bestows on that university the power to stifle competitor entry to the market. But the creation of a new national validating body, Foundation Degree Forward, sidesteps that hazard.

Colleges will not need the permission of their main market rival before expanding the supply of foundation degrees.

The government has yet to say how the new body will be constituted, but a coalition of expertise from education and industry would be a way forward.

The validating centre will need to win public confidence in the new qualifications. In doing so, it can also foster a general rapid improvement in the quality of college provision. For this to happen, expertise from colleges will need to be considered alongside experienced colleagues from universities to create a critical mass of college academics prepared for self-managed course quality enhancement.

This model is the Council for National Academic Awards reinvented for colleges. Polytechnics awarded degrees under CNAA licence in the 1970s; a decade later, most were awarding degrees in their own name. Full university status soon followed, and the CNAA was dissolved in 1992.

The CNAA's strength lay in raising standards through peer evaluation and scholarly exchange. The principles and practice of quality improvement were fought out and tested by academic peers. Dialogue by leading academics in their field drove standards higher. Public trust followed.

This model achieved what no compliance-seeking quality regime could - it encouraged risk-taking, imagination and innovation in course design.

Just as universities once helped polytechnics gain public trust, they can now help colleges raise standards. Rising standards in former polytechnics led to an expansion of demand for higher education. Higher standards in colleges will do the same. Universities should encourage college activity in higher education by generous participation in the new validating body.

And colleges have everything to gain, too. Promoting foundation degrees in colleges gives that sector an expanded role in locally responsive skills development. There is a strong case for colleges to one day award foundation degrees. The sector is keen to shed its reliance on expensive examining bodies in favour of a self-managed solution. But if colleges are to prosper, standards must first rise to secure public confidence.

Reinventing the CNAA in some appropriate form, coupled with the prospect of specific awarding powers further ahead, would be a bold step. A rapid boost to standards in the sector would follow, a boost begun with foundation degrees and made possible by the non-rival involvement and shared expertise of universities.

David Robertson is professor of public policy and education at Liverpool John Moores University.

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