Derby sails into the unknown

January 1, 1999

Derby University is facing up to a political challenge. It is so on message in terms of the government's lifelong learning agenda that it has almost gone off message.

If that sounds confusing, Roger Waterhouse, the university's vice-chancellor, has an explanation.

"The government does not have a consistent position on lifelong learning. Different ministers say different things. If the government was really serious, it would ask the question: 'How do we change what we have to build a lifelong learning system?' I do not think there is any will to do that."

The key problem, says Professor Waterhouse, is that the government and its funding agencies "persist in avoiding convergence" between further and higher education. Despite talk about widening participation, ministers are wary about unifying post-16 education. They warned recently against moves towards mergers between colleges and universities.

This puts Derby in an awkward spot, as it continues to push ahead with a pioneering mission to create a local unified lifelong learning system. In partnership with Derbyshire further education colleges, Derby has set up a county-wide network that gives students credit for bite-sized units of learning throughout further and higher education. It has opened remote learning centres with video-conferencing and internet facilities, including one in a village pub, in several rural sites.

Next, the university will open a centre for tourism and hospitality management training in the centre of Buxton. The development will be part of High Peak College, which merged with Derby University in September.

The High Peak merger was approved by Baroness Blackstone, the further and higher education minister, on the grounds that it was a "special case". But Professor Waterhouse worries that Derby's mission is so pioneering that its special-case status will not help it overcome the disadvantages of being out of step with the sector's funding and quality assurance systems.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England's bidding process for the latest tranche of money, for instance, encourages further education colleges to run sub-degree courses independently of universities, he said.

It is also uncertain how Derby's quality assurance system, which is to cover further and higher education provision, will square with the Quality Assurance Agency's proposals to benchmark standards across higher education. "Benchmarking works if you compare like with like. But if you are doing something new, how do you benchmark against that?" Professor Waterhouse asked.

New universities such as Derby could find themselves exposed as such questions begin to be answered. Fallout from problems at Thames Valley University, another pioneering institution, appears likely to bring them under increased scrutiny. Professor Waterhouse makes no comment on this, but he is clearly aware of the position.

"We know the eyes are upon us, so we know we have to get it right. We have said we will build a system of lifelong learning, and we are happy to be judged on the outcome," he said.

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