Fight or flight is the wrong response - there's no danger here

John Widdowson says universities and colleges should focus on the positives aspects of changes to foundation degree-awarding powers

November 6, 2008

Contrary to anxieties expressed recently in Times Higher Education ("Fight or flight", 16 October), the new powers given to colleges to award foundation degrees do not pose a threat to the successful and fruitful partnerships between universities and colleges.

Instead, they allow each partner to play to its strengths and to help build on the success of foundation degrees as flexible qualifications that are attractive to students, employers and universities.

Fears that the quality of the overall higher education offer will be diluted are unfounded. The Quality Assurance Agency judges 99 per cent of higher education courses in colleges to be "commendable or approved", and there are a number of checks and balances set out in the Further Education and Training Act 2007 to ensure that the same quality standards apply to foundation degrees.

Under the Act, powers will initially be granted to colleges only for a limited period of six years, after which the Privy Council will have the opportunity to confirm those powers indefinitely or, should quality standards be a concern, refuse to do so.

Similarly, any college wishing to apply for the powers must have at least four consecutive years' experience of delivering at this level. No application will be considered unless the college has consulted its students and gained the support of its governing body. In addition to these safeguards, the impact of the Act will be reviewed after four years.

Fears of dilution of standards through franchise are also misplaced and potentially mischievous. Colleges will not have "an unlimited ability to franchise foundation degrees" as was feared by some interviewed for the feature.

In contrast to the awarding powers granted to universities under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, the college offer will be restricted to students enrolled at the awarding institution and, in the first instance, that institution will not be able to authorise other institutions to award its foundation degrees.

The fundamental link between foundation and honours degrees will not be severed. The legislation specifically requires all foundation degrees to be articulated with higher level provision, including honours provision but also, should the student choose, to other higher level qualifications such as those offered by professional bodies.

Nor are all colleges clamouring to become higher education institutions. As detailed in Times Higher Education, Bradford College has indicated its intention to pursue full degree-awarding powers, but only a handful of colleges have made the move into the higher education sector. Apart from these institutions, it is difficult to discern any significant interest from others.

There is certainly no reason why the advent of foundation degree-awarding powers for colleges should signal the end of positive relationships between colleges and universities. In fact, both types of institution have the potential to benefit greatly from the new situation, as do the students and communities we all serve.

Colleges enjoy good and effective working relationships with employers at both local and regional level. Many of these employers have yet to appreciate the value of higher level skills and qualifications for their employees and their business.

Colleges have a vital role to play in ensuring that high-quality higher education is available at local level, responding quickly and flexibly to employer needs, especially in those specialist or niche areas where larger institutions may find such responses difficult.

They also have a good grasp of emerging skill needs, using experience gained via the delivery of further education provision to shape and inform higher education provision that is relevant and valued. This is in addition to the important part colleges play in widening participation in both further and higher education, reaching out to individuals and communities that are underrepresented.

Most colleges will not seek to take on foundation degree-awarding powers, but the fact that some colleges may now have the power to award their own foundation degrees can only add to the range of opportunities available and to the number of people able to benefit from higher education.

Rather than focus on any potentially negative aspects of this change, universities and colleges should seize the opportunity to find innovative and creative ways to work together. They must recognise the strengths that each sector brings and the advantages for all concerned if we put the interests of students, employers and communities ahead of institutional self-interest.

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