Community cohesion

The gap between further and higher education is still too wide, but the US model could bridge it, says Rob Wilson

April 30, 2009

The news that further education provision at Thames Valley University was judged to be inadequate by a recent Ofsted inspection is disappointing. The university offers a near-exhaustive menu of A levels, diplomas, NVQs, degrees, employer-based and distance-learning courses. One does not doubt its ambition or its commitment to lifelong learning, but perhaps by turning its hand to almost everything, it risks failing the people who need it most.

Nevertheless, Thames Valley should be applauded for offering different learning methods and pathways for the young and not-so-young - but it is not. Institutions that offer multiple ways for students to enter and re-enter education are unintentionally penalised because there is no fundamental strategy underpinning post-16 provision. The reasons for Thames Valley's failure are complex, but part of the problem is that it does not fit into the Government's identikit system focusing on 18- to 21-year-olds studying three-year degrees.

Lord Dearing's review of higher education, published in 1997, said that participation could be widened if higher education institutions offered more flexible provision, but funding is still based on a full-time three-year model.

Dearing recommended that higher education in further education colleges should be funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, but instead Labour widened the divide between the sectors by establishing the Learning and Skills Council to control the further education budget. Similarly, the Leitch report concluded that reskilling is fundamental to the UK's economic future, but the Government has made it more difficult for people to learn new skills by cutting funding for equivalent and lower qualifications.

The one-size-fits-all approach is failing. Widening-participation statistics show that Labour's efforts to expand opportunity have stalled. A recent report indicates that the correlation in the UK between higher education participation and parents with university qualifications is one of the highest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. A study for the Sutton Trust found that social mobility remains as static for people born in 1985 as it was for those born in 1970.

Thames Valley and other universities would benefit from looking across the Atlantic. Community colleges are the largest single part of higher education in the US, offering short vocational courses as well as the equivalent of foundation degrees. They provide access to higher learning for millions of students.

Like US community colleges, the UK's further education sector has a higher proportion of entrants from lower socio-economic groups, and plays a vital role in providing education and training for nearly 750,000 16- to 18-year-olds a year, along with two million adults.

In the US, students begin the first part of their associate degree at a community college, with the option of using accumulated credit to transfer to a traditional university to complete a bachelors degree. In the UK, there is no seamless transition, owing to our failure to develop a credit framework allowing transfers between institutions.

By breaking courses into bite-sized and often part-time chunks, US colleges also offer the chance to reskill without having to shoehorn busy lives into rigid timetables. In Britain, non-linear progression is still viewed as dropping out rather than dropping in - but in today's economic climate, many people must reskill to return to the workplace.

One advantage of the community college model is that it is more cost-effective: networks are organised on sub-regional lines and often pool resources. While there are examples of good practice in the UK, I believe local "articulation agreements" should be encouraged, led by a strong university at the core of each grouping.

Our system needs an overhaul. When finalising the new funding regime, John Denham, the Universities Secretary, should devise a model that encourages flexible learning, with an improved focus on students progressing between further and higher education.

It is clear that some universities, such as Thames Valley, need to refocus. It is time they were given the chance to learn valuable lessons from the US.

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