No more condescension, please

Directly funding further education colleges would allow them to take their rightful place in the academy, argues Philip Davies

May 9, 2010

In a famous comedy sketch for The Frost Report, John Cleese in a bowler hat and pinstripes looks down on Ronnie Barker because he is “middle class”, while Barker looks up to Cleese because he is “upper class”. Both look down on little Ronnie Corbett because he is “lower class”. Corbett in a flat cap and muffler looks up at everyone and declares ruefully: “I know my place.”

Although a satire on the class system, the sentiment aptly reflects the diverse higher education landscape populated by Russell Group universities at one end, post-1992 ex-polytechnics in the middle and further education colleges, newly ushered into the higher education club by government initiatives, that are expected to “know their place”.

The Higher Ambitions White Paper signalled the need for a “major change in the culture of our higher education system”. Lord Mandelson said: “Our challenge now is to bring higher and further education into a single integrated knowledge infrastructure.” However, the relationship between higher education and further education is founded on a number of inherent inequalities that often go unacknowledged and undiscussed, undermining the chances of their working together effectively.

One inequality is academic. Before the Quality Assurance Agency’s Integrated quality and enhancement review (IQER), the higher education institution partner was the sole arbiter of academic standards in its associated further education college. Most colleges had never heard of the QAA codes of practice. Now, with IQER, for the first time colleges have a direct connection with the QAA, and some universities do not take kindly to the idea.

Then there is resource inequality. The 2008 National Student Survey tells us that only 64 per cent of students at further education colleges were able to access specialist equipment compared with 76 per cent at higher education institutions. Only 71 per cent of college students said library resources were good enough compared with 81 per cent at university.

On top of this, higher education lecturers typically teach about 16 hours per week against 24 hours for college lecturers who are paid less for it.

Funding is also unequal. In all, 128 colleges are directly funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England: the rest are indirectly funded through higher education partners. While indirect funding may be a useful administrative convenience for Hefce, the problems it causes colleges are inestimable.

Indirectly funded colleges do not have direct access to capital funding, cannot bid for additional student numbers, and cannot directly access project funds or make bids to the Higher Education Academy and other agencies. And because they do not hold their own student numbers, they have no security either.

There is a danger that colleges will be used as a buffer to protect university numbers – and this would mean that cuts would disproportionately affect higher education in further education.

But the worst of it is this: as it stands, there is no way out of the funding division. Hefce has provided no mechanism to move to direct funding. This is an oversight that needs correcting.

Colleges need to be treated more fairly. Thanks to Hefce and the QAA, they are now responsible for their own higher education strategies and academic infrastructures. Universities also need to recognise that colleges have come of age, and there are some simple steps they could take to acknowledge colleges’ academic competence.

There should be no artificial limits on colleges being able to deliver bachelor’s or master’s degrees in their own areas of expertise. They should be allowed to run their own examination boards and manage their own quality procedures. The practice of universities moderating colleges should be abandoned as not in keeping with the spirit of the peer-review models that pervade the academy.

Universities should also consider conferring visiting professorships and visiting fellowships on college staff as they do with directors of companies they value. And they should invite college academics to join their staff on the platform at award ceremonies rather than reduce them merely to the role of marshals, as often happens. These are areas that could be addressed quickly and with little or no cost.

But the single most effective way of removing inequality would be to eliminate indirect funding. All colleges with substantial provision (more than 100 full-time equivalent students) should be directly funded. This would let them take control of their own higher education strategies and remove the inbuilt servility that the “cap-in-hand” indirect-funding regime will always foster while one partner has financial control over the other.

There will always be some who look down on higher education in further education as second-class provision, offering a working-man’s degree as opposed to real qualifications. But if it is only ever expected to look up to “real” higher education provision, then like Ronnie Corbett, all we will get is a crick in the neck.

Philip Davies is assistant director of higher education at Bournemouth and Poole College.

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