Partners for better not worse

May 26, 1995

Phil Walkling wants improved quality control of HE in FE colleges.

The English higher education funding and quality councils have each recently produced reports on the relationship between higher education institutions and further education colleges. Both give some substance to the feeling of unease in the post-16 education system about the quality of some of these relationships. It is good to see information that allays or substantiates these concerns.

The funding council report: Higher Education in Further Education Colleges: Funding the Relationship, is an excellent account of the geography of one part of the ragged boundaries within post-16 education. The report celebrates the diversity of relationships between institutions and colleges and notes the great extension of opportunities for advanced study which these relationships allow. The most valid justification for an institution to offer its programmes in a college is precisely the extension of access and opportunity to those to whom it would otherwise be denied.

This denial might result from several factors, of which two predominate. First, there are geographical constraints for many people, but particularly for mature or part-time students. Indeed, for "traditional" full-time students in the new world of inadequate financial support and widening differences of income, the opportunity to study to an advanced level will increasingly depend on the ability to live at home. In such cases, the higher education institution is acting responsibly in seeking to provide a full range of opportunities to its community. Second, the denial might be less tangible. There are psychological, social and cultural barriers to opportunity for many people which hinder their approach to any institution called "university". Their local college is friendlier, and institutions and colleges can combine to provide ladders of opportunity for people to reach higher education without noticing the transitions on the way.

The appendices to the report show that the vast majority of relationships are contained in regional groupings and the report concludes that the quality of provision seems to be much the same in the college as in the institution. Evidence, both from the report and anecdotally around the system, suggests that very strong partnerships have developed which exploit the strengths of both partners for the benefit of all students.

Cliff Allen of HEFCE's policy division has noted the lack of evidence of poor quality provision and referred to a "mythology" that there might be a lot of low-quality higher education out in the system. That mythology is no doubt in part caused by the persistence of "more means worse" snobbishness.

There is one area of provision, however, where the mythology might turn out to be the truth because no one is responsible for conducting quality assessments of the provision at subject and classroom level. Both FE and HE funding councils inspect only the provision that they fund: but there are examples of institutions using their powers to validate programmes for which they have no funding and which the college runs on the fees collected. In the case of full- time provision, those fees, once very high, are now very low. It is inconceivable that those programmes can be delivered at the requisite quality unless they are subsidised from the college's other activities.

The HEFCE report does not list these relationships in the appendices, because it does not know about them. It suggests that in the absence of evidence of poor quality there is no need to seek the extension of its inspection powers to higher education that it does not fund. It would however be erroneous for anyone to conclude that because HEFCE does not fund this work, it is not publicly funded. First, the fees and any student support will normally be met from public funds via the student's local education authority. Second, the necessary subsidy from the college will almost certainly be coming, at least in part, from funds provided by the FEFC, which is explicitly not for higher education.

Why would any college want to engage in unfunded higher education from a remote validator? There is no doubt that some will do so in a limited way in order to complete the opportunities available in a particular subject to meet local demand. There is equally no doubt that there is an element of pride in this: a college of further education becomes a college of further and higher education, and may believe that it gains marketing or other advantages. Whatever the reason, it is improper for any validator to approve such provision in the absence of quality assurance, which will include inspection of provision in the classroom and scrutiny and assessment of the student experience and the course standards.

The HEFCE report is clear that there is a wide variety of funding between institutions and colleges, and notes the absence of any common agreement. This reflects the freedom of the market. Again, there is a myth that it is not unknown for institutions to "dump" maximum aggregate student numbers to which they cannot recruit on to colleges while transferring just the fee. It has even been alleged that this happens in adjacent and competitive colleges, thus handicapping the colleges in their strategic development.

The use of a mythology is to plug gaps in our knowledge. Where we have no evidence, we speculate. There are two conclusions. First, all publicly-funded provision should be subject to the same inspection and audit. The relative responsibilities of the funding councils should not be the determining factor, since the expenditure of public funds is involved. Second, no institution should be funded by HEFCE for what it does not provide.

The Higher Education Quality Council report Learning from Collaborative Audit is the third in a series which have focused on links between further and higher education. This new report summarises the findings of 14 "collaborative audits", only some of which are to do with relationships with colleges. The audit is described as "an interim report" and we can look forward to a wider and more detailed study. This is necessary because, of the 14 universities studied, only one is new. Given the extensive activity of the new universities franchising to colleges, and their role in the growth of higher education provision off-campus, a study which includes a significant number of the new universities would be very welcome.

Even so, this report provides some valuable insights. First, there is the huge diversity of relationships which exist. These might be marked by the relative maturity of the partners and the stage of development of quality assurance arrangements in each of them. Some relationships may be a true partnership or more about the purchasing of services on a commercial basis. Then there is the extent to which the relationship is part of a strategy for improving the provision of higher education in a strategic and developing manner, or is a "one off" arrangement for pragmatic or even opportunistic reasons. In each of these areas, there is a whole spectrum of possibilities. Author John Hilbourne has provided a useful net of categories in which to try and catch all of these aspects of possible relationships, but recognises that the way they continually develop and change in the real world makes each one different.

The chief conclusion is that, while universities have shown some ability to work with partners at a strategic level and to put in place appropriate validation and approval arrangements, the weakest area of the partnerships lies in the monitoring and review of programmes once in operation. It is easy to act as equal partners when in a "purchaser/seller" relationship. It is much harder to submit to continual intervention. Therefore the best methods seek to establish monitoring which respects institutional amour-propre by using the quality assurance systems of both partners. This requires increased closeness, and joint development in matters such as strategic planning, the disposition of resources and institutional missions.

Between them, the two reports show that institutions and colleges have used their new freedoms to bring about a growing and very effective extension of educational opportunity through their variety of relationships. Both reports show that there is a danger that "off-campus" provision will be seen as second-rate. There is no evidence of this, but if some provision is not inspected (the funding council model) and not subject to proper monitoring (the HEQC model) then ignorance will lead to mythology. It is essential that the education community ensures that mythology is replaced by knowledge, so that bad practice does not drive out good. Phil Walkling is pro vice chancellor at the University of Central England in Birmingham.

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