GuildHE chair gives ministers an academic reality check

Many ideas floated by government are already in place, says v-c of Bucks New. Simon Baker writes

August 12, 2010

Government ministers are displaying a "lack of knowledge" about higher education and should do more to learn about the sector's diversity, the chair of GuildHE has said.

Ruth Farwell, vice-chancellor of Bucks New University, said ministers' recent comments on vocational education, externally examined degrees and two-year accelerated programmes supported her argument.

She said many of the proposals and ideas floated in speeches and other public statements by the business secretary, Vince Cable, and the universities and science minister, David Willetts, were already happening in one form or another.

Mr Cable in particular was "possibly not understanding the university sector as much as he should", Professor Farwell said.

"There have been lots of noises about supporting a diverse sector, but it would be helpful if they would find out more about how diverse the sector is," she told Times Higher Education. "I think maybe in the back of their minds there is this model of a traditional university and a traditional student."

She added: "We would welcome Vince Cable coming to see more institutions in the sector to increase his knowledge."

Professor Farwell referred to the idea, originally floated by Mr Willetts, of encouraging new or existing providers to teach to an externally set degree standard.

Many further education colleges were already teaching courses accredited by universities through franchises or other arrangements, she said.

She also warned that any move to encourage existing degree-awarding institutions to teach courses examined by other universities would be "counter-intuitive".

"It would be unfortunate if we went down this route without regard to what is taking place. It could destroy a lot of local relationships that we know are beneficial," she said.

Professor Farwell also referred to the recent debate instigated by former CBI director general Digby Jones, who called on universities to offer more vocational courses to meet the demands of business.

She argued that plenty of institutions, including Bucks New, were working closely with local small and medium-sized businesses to develop degrees tailored to the skills required.

"If you talk to employers where they have built up relationships with higher education in their area, then the messages are quite different," she explained.

Professor Farwell also questioned the "erroneous" belief that accelerated two-year degrees would be cheaper to provide and cost students less.

With degrees closely linked to the standards demanded by professional bodies, she said, it was not possible to shorten the curriculum - therefore courses would be the same length, just squashed into two years rather than three, and at the same cost.

Students would also not necessarily save money by studying over two years, as they could lose the chance to work during long holidays and would need to pay for accommodation and travel for a larger proportion of the year.

"I don't think if you balance it out there would be as much of a difference as you might expect," she said.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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