Edexcel eyes degree-awarding powers as FE 'peasants' are urged to revolt

Examination board Edexcel may apply for degree-awarding powers, Times Higher Education has learned.

November 4, 2010

A spokesman for the exam board, which is owned by the publishing giant Pearson, confirmed that it is exploring the potential for providing further education colleges with degree certification, describing the step as a natural progression from its higher national diploma provision.

The move, which is in line with the desire of David Willetts, the universities and science minister, to expand the range of higher education providers, follows last week's news that a school in Norfolk is bidding to become the first state secondary school to offer University of London degrees.

Edexcel is to discuss its plans with college principals at the Association of Colleges conference in Birmingham later this month.

Martin Doel, the association's chief executive, described the move as a "logical step".

Colleges fear that in tough financial times and while subject to a cap on student numbers, many more universities will follow the example of De Montfort University and withdraw their validation of degrees delivered by further education institutions.

Mr Doel said that colleges are stuck in a "feudal relationship" with universities, where "the squire decides what the serfs can teach".

"We need a peasants' revolt where colleges realise what they do is exceptionally important. They need an opportunity to promote what they do effectively," he said.

The introduction of Edexcel, he argued, would enable colleges to find a degree-awarding partner best suited to them.

The association is also talking to private provider BPP, which was granted university college status earlier this year, about the role it could play in validating degrees.

"The opportunity for colleges to be free to seek the best partners in higher education is important, as is being masters of their own destiny," Mr Doel said.

However, he warned against Edexcel gaining a stranglehold on the further education sector.

"My concern is that it has a near-monopolistic supply in relation to some qualifications, which I think is anti-competitive and is leading to some cost growth. I'd hate for colleges to exchange one master for another," he said.

John Widdowson, principal of New College Durham, said colleges would welcome the opportunity to deliver degrees with a familiar organisation.

"We can see the logic of progression routes right up into higher education. It makes a lot of sense," he said.

New College is expecting to receive its own degree-awarding powers early next year.

Mr Widdowson said colleges that achieve those powers would be able to undercut universities following the impending rise in the cap on tuition fees.

"It's widely accepted that colleges have a low cost base. By focusing on teaching and learning, we can provide better value for students," he said.

The Association of Colleges estimates that its members could charge as little as £5,000 a year. "This seems likely to be less than universities, and also comes with the benefit of students generally living at home. If you are a student, you are looking at considerably less debt and a qualification that is more employer-facing, leading directly to a job," Mr Doel said.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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