Principals warn that attempts to 'tidy up' higher education will lead to an identity crisis, writes Tony Tysome
Ministers and quality chiefs attempting to impose a new order in higher education have ended up creating a more chaotic sector, college principals warned this week.
Poorly thought-out rules on institutions' titles, recently introduced by the government, coupled with "unacceptable" proposals by the Quality Assurance Agency to restrict the academic scope of colleges, have brought about an identity crisis in the higher education college sector.
The changes have had the opposite effect to what ministers, who were planning to "tidy up" the sector, had hoped for.
They have sent colleges denied use of the newly defined university college title off in different directions in search of a name and a mission that will mean something to prospective students at home and abroad. As a result, contrary to the QAA's claim to have divided the sector into two distinct groups - university colleges and higher education colleges - the Standing Conference of Principals suggests its member institutions have scattered into numerous categories.
Joining them soon may be dozens of further education colleges with a significant number of higher education students, encouraged by the government's new penchant for more higher education in FE and the QAA's decision to leave the door open for FE colleges to join the degree awarding powers club.
There are now more than 30 further education colleges with 500 full-time equivalent higher education students, and SCOP has already been approached by 16 of them - members of the "mixed-economy group" of colleges - interested in associate SCOP membership.
While both SCOP and the Association of Colleges say they will not try to control the emerging academic maelstrom, neither is comfortable with it. SCOP suspects the government and the QAA are plotting to polarise higher education colleges to end the confusion, forcing them to either gain university college status or get into bed with a local university.
The AoC says too much blurring of the edges between further and higher education can be "unhelpful", even though paradoxically it supports the government's policy of higher education expansion in further education.
The government's heavy-handed approach makes a mockery of ministers' claims to support diversity in higher education, and fails to provide non-university colleges with a stable enough foundation on which to build an identity and reputation, the SCOP says.
Patricia Ambrose, the SCOP's chief executive, said: "The worrying thing is that the government is quite schizophrenic in what it wants from higher education. It says it wants broader access and greater flexibility, yet it also wants consistent standards across the board. There is a certain amount of tension there."
She said the QAA's proposed new criteria for degree-awarding powers and university college and university status, along with its appeal for legislation to enable it to demote institutions, added up to an agenda that said some of the current universities should never have got university status - "therefore we will stop some of the other institutions in their tracks even though they may have a better quality record than certain universities".
Many colleges that had been advised to apply for degree awarding powers by the former Higher Education Quality Council have been left in limbo by the QAA's review, and are waiting to see how the new framework will shape up before deciding what to do next.
Ms Ambrose said: "There is a perception that the goal-posts keep shifting. Every time an institution feels it is maturing and progressing, something else changes and it finds itself put back a few years. It makes it difficult for institutions to know how to position and market themselves."
Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute and former HEQC director, says the QAA's attempts to gain more control through giving, defining and taking away degree-awarding powers, could mean that even institutions allowed to use the university college title could not feel safe.
"The government has knowingly, or unknowingly, created a much more volatile and unpredictable sector, in which many institutions may not have a distinctive role," he said. "A title makes you safer, but it does not make you safe."
Dr Brown argues that the government needs to make a choice between a clearly-defined planned system that still allows room for innovation, or a free-market system.
"I am not saying one or the other is better, but at the moment we have neither. We have a mixed system with policies pushing in two different directions, and everyone is left feeling frustrated," he said.
Some colleges have already sought a relatively safe haven through a merger with a university. Westminster College, which has been offering mostly teaching training programmes through a validating arrangement with Oxford University, has seen a significant drop in student numbers and has agreed in principle to a merger with Oxford Brookes University.
Philip Healy, Westminster's director of academic and external affairs, said a review of the college's marketing strategy drew the conclusion that fee-paying students were only really interested in an institution with university in its title.
"What has happened is that the binary line has been drawn again rather firmly, and SCOP colleges are the only institutions on the wrong side of the line," he said.
Even heads of colleges that have managed to secure use of the university college title feel that the sector is being hampered in its development by the changing rules.
Michael Wright, principal of Canterbury Christ Church University College, which is applying for research degree-awarding powers and has a long-term aim to gain university status, said: "If you have been working towards a position over a long period, rules changes have major implications.
"If the criteria for degree- awarding powers and titles are changed radically, it can be very difficult to carry through your long-term plans."
Dr Brown said that, in the end, it is the students who will lose out if diversity is sacrificed for the sake of rationalisation.
"Many of the students now coming into higher education are very different from those previously. It will be very unfortunate if this system is not open and able to respond to their needs," he said.