The Open University is launching a new validation service for further education colleges and alternative providers, as it aims to become the biggest player in validating qualifications for that part of the sector.
The OU has validated other institutions’ courses since 1992 but is now looking to significantly expand its activities in this area, in partnership with the Quality Assurance Agency and Independent Higher Education, formerly known as Study UK, which represents a number of private providers.
The distance learning university claims that it can offer colleges a more stable and less restrictive validation arrangement than other institutions, in the wake of Teesside University withdrawing validation from 10 further education colleges in one swoop earlier this year.
In addition to the 25 institutions for which it already validates qualifications, the OU has announced five new partners, including at least two that formerly worked with Teesside: New College Durham and Leeds City College.
The OU is interested in taking on the role of “validator of last resort” envisaged under the Higher Education and Research Bill, which would see it validating qualifications offered by a range of institutions if access to the sector remains restricted.
And the new service might also enable the OU to capitalise on the government’s plan to admit many more alternative providers into the English higher education sector, potentially providing a lucrative source of income for an institution that has suffered serious financial difficulties in recent years.
Key complaints about university validation in general are that it is too slow, often taking up to two years to get a course approved, too expensive, and is too often shaped by the desire of the university to avoid competition with its own programmes. There are also concerns that colleges have limited protection if a university changes its mind about the partnership.
The OU aims to speed up the process by working with the QAA to ensure that colleges can use documentation produced for review by the watchdog for validation as well, removing the need for work to be effectively duplicated. It aims to make costing more transparent by charging according to how much work is involved in validation, rather than levying a per-student fee, and is offering five-year partnerships that are likely to be curtailed only by financial or quality failings.
As a distance learning institution, the OU also believes that it is significantly less likely to find itself being approached by providers offering courses that directly compete with its provision.
Liz Marr, director of the OU’s Centre for Inclusion and Collaborative Partnerships, said that she hoped the university could become the UK’s most significant validating institution.
“This could make the whole validation process quicker, easier and less costly for all parties,” she said. “We are working towards an exemplar model which will ensure there is a level playing field for people who want to come into the higher education sector.”
Institutions such as the University of Wales have faced strong criticism for their validation arrangements, and it could be argued that the sector is moving away from this model, with the government proposing to allow new providers to award their own degrees from day one, without a partner university.
But Dr Marr said that she believed validation would “remain important for the time being”.
“Going straight to becoming a degree-awarding entity from a standing start is unrealistic,” she said. “I think there needs to be a developmental process in place to support institutions, and validation does that currently.”