A tie-up between The Open University and an exam board could give further education colleges more freedom to teach higher education without the need to partner with a university.
From next year colleges will be able to teach “white-collar vocational” courses offered by the exam board OCR that can be converted into full Open University degrees with just one year of distance study.
The 21 November announcement comes after Bradford College saw its application for taught degree-awarding powers turned down, a decision that dealt a blow to colleges’ hopes of more autonomy over their higher education provision.
From September 2013, OCR will offer qualifications developed jointly with The Open University that are equivalent to a foundation degree - comparable to the first two years of an honours degree - which can be studied full or part time. OCR is part of Cambridge Assessment, an agency of the University of Cambridge.
The new Open University/OCR qualifications, called “Cambridge Technicals”, will be offered in subjects such as accounting, information technology and, possibly, engineering. They can be turned into undergraduate degrees via further study through The Open University.
Specifics of the courses to be offered have yet to be confirmed as they are under development by Open University academics and OCR.
Awarding bodies such as Edexcel already allow colleges to offer higher-level qualifications without the need for a university partner, after which students can study for a year at a university to top up their qualification to a full degree.
However, OCR hopes that the new qualification will prove easier to roll out for colleges than existing foundation degrees because students will be able to convert it to a full degree anywhere in the country.
Furthermore, colleges will not be required to agree partnerships with universities in order to take on foundation degree students.
The move is the latest by an exam board to offer higher education in colleges backed by a university.
Education giant Pearson, which owns Edexcel, began offering business and enterprise degrees in September at its own college in London. The award is validated by Royal Holloway, University of London.
However, exam boards are still not able to award their own full degrees through colleges. The government shelved plans earlier this year for a higher education bill that would have changed the law to make this possible.
On 19 November it emerged that the Quality Assurance Agency had recommended against granting Bradford College taught degree-awarding powers because more work was needed on its “pedagogic effectiveness and scholarly activity”.
In August 2011 two colleges - NCG, formerly known as Newcastle College Group, and New College Durham - won foundation degree-awarding powers, but with Bradford’s failure no college has been given the ability to grant full degrees so far.
Speaking at the Association of Colleges’ annual conference on 22 November, Stephen Jackson, director of the QAA’s reviews group, said that the agency was preparing additional guidance for colleges on the requirements they needed to meet, “particularly around the area of scholarship”.
There was a debate on the extent to which “professional experience and engagement with employers” by college staff could be considered scholarship, he said.
Speaking at the conference the day before, Vince Cable, the business secretary, made clear that the QAA decision was “independent … it wasn’t a political decision”.