Partners for better not worse

April 9, 1999

The advantages of college franchises outweigh the disadvantages, argues Derek Portwood

Franchising and collaborative programmes have become a nightmare for senior staff in further education colleges. Operating beyond the catchment area is beyond the pale, following criticisms from the Public Accounts Committee and ministerial decrees to stay local. Retrenchment is the order of the day.

No doubt concerns from such bodies as the National Audit Office and the Further Education Funding Council are legitimate. But the extreme political consequences are not.

Confining the activities of further education colleges to their localities conflicts with government commitments to widen participation. I learned this while researching what the participants made of colleges' collaborative developments with industry and community organisations beyond their immediate boundaries.

Groups of colleges commissioned the research, which involved visiting a sample of colleges and participating organisations last spring. The message was unequivocal: advantages far outweighed disadvantages. Money was one advantage and hard bargaining had indeed taken place. But what really mattered to the participants was forming a trustworthy relationship with colleges, based on provision of relevant services.

Wherever we went, we heard how this relationship was helping to widen participation. In the Midlands, ethnic-based churches spoke of a new curriculum for their congregations, which included small business training and information technology. "We're OK with Bible studies," they said. "Our people needed to learn about computers and their use." These churches were part of national and international networks. They had found an education partner they trusted.

But the advantages worked the other way too. We found an appreciation among college staff of the values, beliefs, customs and practices of the ethnic groups that percolated our curriculum.

It was a similar story with industry. Colleges had invested heavily in providing customised services and courses. They had won the trust of those businesses, which, in turn, had recommended them to their wider networks.

Even when the colleges were working with private providers, we heard repeated stories of how the colleges' involvement had upgraded the skills and knowledge of those providers and made their practices more rigorous.

We did find a few examples of failure. But it seemed that it was less the outreach that was at fault than the fact that the colleges had gone beyond their capacities.

Good practice far exceeded bad and colleges appeared to learn from mistakes. In the Northwest, for example, where participating organisations had raised questions about quality, a team of senior staff had produced a staff manual on quality assurance for collaborative programmes.

Our research concluded that the colleges' collaborative programmes were clearly effective in widening participation. It is sad to see franchise courses getting such bad press. What worries me is that colleges will be frightened off and examples of good practice lost. The real losers will be those who, at present, are not participating in further education at all.

Derek Portwood is emeritus professor, National Centre for Work-Based Learning, Middlesex University.

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