Marriages of true minds

October 17, 1997

Dearing on quality: doomed to failure.

Compact arrangements are a central theme running throughout the Dearing report. It is difficult to disagree with the partnership arrangements envisaged, based on a simplified quality assurance system - each further education college having a single higher education partner, regional progression and direct funding to colleges.

Regional progression is the least contentious and the easiest to understand of these issues. In the North-west more than 65 per cent of higher education students come from the region. Many started their studies at a local further education college. Regions which do not have their own university could claim they have been neglected but HEproviders in neighbouring counties have made major contributions. In Cumbria, for example, the universities of Central Lancashire, North-umbria and Salford together with University College St Martin, encouraged by the funding council, have between them provided places equivalent to a small university.

Growth in Cumbria in the past few years has been spectacular; numbers at Central Lancashire alone have increased from 300 in 1993/94 to more than 1,000 projected for 1997/98. This growth has been on the back of an exclusive associate college agreement with three Cumbria colleges at Newton Rigg, Kendal and Furness. Exclusivity is a contentious issue. Many colleges and a few universities will be disturbed by a model based on exclusive arrangement between a higher education institution and a further education college. However, it is not difficult to understand the rationale for such a move. College staff and students have to answer to increasing, diverse demands. Funding bodies, regional agencies and Tecs and, in some cases, six or more university providers all have their own quality assurance framework, time-scale and methodology of reporting. Although it has been argued that there are considerable similarities between university quality procedures some partnership audits conducted by the Higher Education Quality Council suggest otherwise.

Exclusivity means that franchising activities cannot be simply a marriage of convenience, or even a matter of expediency. Institutional partnerships become a long-term commitment. The balance of power must always lie with the degree-awarding partner - but the relationship can no longer be a loose one. The college must seek and achieve long-term commitments from its partner university including guaranteed progression rights, opportunities for staff development and access to a wider range of resources.

Colleges have long argued for direct funding from the Higher Education Funding Council. Developments at subdegree level will involve such funding but this may have an adverse effect on some regional developments. Indeed, part of the commitment to exclusivity has to be an open, transparent and fair redistribution of funding from the funding council. It does however allow some regional initiatives to start where there is a common will but often not a common way.

For example, the University of Central Lancashire with its eight associate colleges recently launched the Virtual Academic Library of the North West. This was made possible by a common agreement to support the end user requirements in each college, while the university established the electronic links and staffing the library. Such initiatives may prove difficult in the future .

The decision-making has been clarified as a result of Dearing. Its strategy on further/higher education partnerships is characterised by conservatism. But Dearing is right. Security of academic standards, simplified quality assurance arrangements and safeguarding the student experience must be the common goals of both sectors.

JAMES LUSTY

James R. Lusty is a pro vice chancellor at the University of Central Lancashire responsible for quality and external affairs which includes partnershipnetworks.

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