Emma Westcott hopes the Dearing inquiry will resist the temptation to develop higher education at the expense of its poorer relative
THERE are important similarities between the report of the committee chaired by Helena Kennedy on further education and the anticipated report of Sir Ron Dearing's inquiry.
But there are also a number of tensions, notably over funding in the context of the Labour government's first budget.
The two committees are reporting in a political context different to that in which they were established, before the general election. It is expected that Dearing will recommend continuing expansion, the development of learning pathways which are coherent and flexible, and an increased role for high quality learner support and guidance. Dearing will also advocate increased collaboration between institutions, and many will be delighted if Dearing is as explicit as Kennedy has been about the limitations of a competitive sectoral model in delivering inclusive, mass participation.
The reports will share an emphasis on local/regional strategies for delivery in addition to national ones. The Kennedy committee has persuaded the Further Education Funding Council to earmark funding for "strategic partnerships" (collaborative local projects aiming to widen participation) for the next two academic years. Dearing may recommend incentives and funding mechanisms to encourage regional collaboration, for example, between "research-oriented" institutions and others. It is reasonable to assume that the Labour government will be more receptive to these ideas than its predecessor.
Lastly, Dearing, will also make recommendations about the funding of institutions and of students. Dearing's remit spanned "the shape, structure, size and funding of higher education", but the National Committee of Inquiry was widely believed to owe its existence primarily to the pressing need to drive the funding issue into the long grass until after the general election. Kennedy's remit, on the other hand, was to identify the means by which non-participants in further education might become participants. Her committee was therefore explicitly charged with recommending funding methodologies which will "increase, and improve the quality of participation".
Although Gordon Brown's iron grip on the Treasury purse-strings is the reality both committees face, many stakeholders in higher education, including the Association of University Teachers, would like participation to be as central to Dearing's funding deliberations as it has been to Kennedy's.
Dearing is reviewing higher education wherever it is delivered, and a substantial minority of higher education students (up to a third in Scotland) now studies in further education colleges.
He will undoubtedly evaluate this development, and his committee will make recommendations about the further/higher education interface, and about franchising in particular, which will have a significant impact on the both sectors.
Kennedy has emphasised the unique and overlooked role of further education, as distinct from compulsory and higher education. Nevertheless, the committee's funding conclusions have been widely interpreted as a demand for radical redistribution of funding from higher to further education.
This would be disappointing to the advocates of widening participation in higher education. Many Dearing respondents have acknowledged that the state will not fund a mass participation higher education system, and that there will be an increasing reliance on other sources of funding, including student contributions. But they are also hoping to ringfence new and existing funding sources for essential investment in the sector.
Further education is acknowledged to be the "Cinderella sector", and improving the funding of its institutions and students should be central to the new Government's plans for social and economic regeneration. It is disgraceful that further education students have not experienced similar levels of financial support to their higher education counterparts. Labour's plans for the University for Industry and its Welfare to Work commitments will improve the public profile and understanding of further education.
But if further education is Cinderella, it does not necessarily follow that higher education can be cast as the evil ugly sister. Higher education is also critically under-funded (and it can simply cost more); and is beginning to experience the redundancies so familiar to further education. Most importantly, the higher education community is beginning to take its sectoral commitment to bringing in non-participants seriously.
A higher education funding deficit will make it harder to hold the higher education sector to account for its commitment to widening participation. Moreover, if further education is improved at the expense of higher education, the joint legacy of the two committees could be the development of a two-tier higher education system, with "traditional" higher education students gaining access to high-quality, high-status, higher education on the basis of their financial and academic capital, and the rest being offered provision which barely justifies their personal and monetary investment. Foremost among the latter category of students might be the very people Kennedy seeks to involve in lifelong learning.
Working-class graduates of the late 1960s still refer to themselves as the "Robbins generation". The students who may form the "Kennedy generation" have waited a long time for lifelong learning, and its attendant benefits. Their families have paid for other people's children to experience high- quality higher education, and they deserve at least the same standards of provision for their own.
Emma Westcott is education policy researcher for the Association of University Teachers. She writes here in a personal capacity.