Post-92 universities have swiftly challenged government proposals to rekindle a polytechnic-type model for awarding vocational degrees that could pitch them in direct competition with further education colleges.
The plans – outlined in a government consultation that cites the role of the former Council for National Academic Awards, which awarded degrees when post-92 universities were polytechnics – are said to have grabbed the attention of Jo Johnson, the new universities and science minister, who is set to outline his major priorities for higher education in a speech this week.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has been lobbied by further education group the Association of Colleges to consider the creation of a Technical Education Accreditation Council that would accredit colleges – and potentially universities – to develop courses up to foundation degree level in partnership with employers. But the government’s proposal has been criticised by some higher education institutions, including the Million+ group of newer universities.
The government may be attracted by a plan that pledges to expand vocational higher education under a lower-cost model and to improve quality at private colleges after the Public Accounts Committee criticised high dropout rates.
Nick Davy, higher education policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said that changes to the labour market mean that there is growing demand for higher-level skills. But the current higher education system is “very much dominated by a full-time, residential, academic model”, he added.
He also said: “The government naively thought there would be price difference [between universities] and there isn’t…We’ve got a historical legacy where people believe, almost, that it has to be £9,000 and it has to be in somewhere that is medieval and looks like a church.”
A wide-ranging BIS consultation on vocational education closed last week. The consultation document says that the decision to allow polytechnics to become universities, passed in 1992, was “not wrong”. But the move “created a long term structural gap in skills infrastructure – and contributed to a decline in the perceived value of technical skills pathways”, it says.
The consultation also says: “In the past, we have had a distinct system for higher level vocational awards. Polytechnics awarded degrees which were accredited by the UK Council for National Academic Awards.”
The consultation goes on to pose among its questions: “Should a new overarching vocationally focused body be established to grant higher vocational awarding powers?”
Mr Davy downplayed the government’s comparison with the CNAA. A paper published by the Association of Colleges says that the TEAC would not be a new CNAA. “Instead, it would accredit institutions to develop awards not [as the CNAA did] accredit and validate awards,” the paper says.
Referring to the often-quoted strengths of English higher education, Mr Davy said: “People always say it’s autonomy, it’s ability to make its own awards, it’s ability when [institutions] are developing employer-facing programmes to negotiate directly with that employer.
“What we are arguing is…‘Why doesn’t the government look at giving autonomy to colleges?’”
Mr Davy suggested that “most university teachers would say there’s a percentage of their students who would do far better” under a more “practical teaching and learning experience”, rather than the “fairly traditional lecture-seminar-essay type experience, which is still the norm in most English universities”.
‘Welcomed in the private sector’
Further education colleges are currently facing severe financial insecurity under continuing government cuts. A report published just this week by the King’s College London Policy Institute warned that further education may “vanish into history” unless funding was addressed. Moving more into higher education could therefore be seen as one solution by some colleges.
Carl Lygo, vice-chancellor of private provider BPP University, said that looking at resurrecting a CNAA model seemed “sensible”. “It would certainly be welcomed in the private sector as it would mean that it is not necessary to create an entirely new university in order to offer a distinctive new degree provision.”
He added that the Quality Assurance Agency, currently facing major changes to its role, would be “well placed to police this part of the sector”.
But Million+ rejects the idea of creating a new body to grant higher vocational awarding powers in its consultation response.
Pam Tatlow, the organisation’s chief executive, said: “There is no real necessity for a new CNAA which would create an unnecessary additional bureaucracy.
“There is plenty of scope to develop and accredit new qualifications under the present system. The more interesting question is how we foster collaboration between universities and colleges rather than competition between the two, which was a feature of the coalition government’s approach.”