Real reform must mean a partnership of equals

December 20, 2002

Further education is vital to increasing both participation and quality in higher education, argues Colin Flint

When you clear an office after 16 years, the experience can be one of reliving recent history, especially if, like me, you have kept far too much. Headlines from across the years: "Gold standard to tumble" (1995), "Radical reform of post-16 predicted" (1999), "Class-ridden sector slated" (2000), "Time for baccalaureate" (2001). And, coming right up to date with last week's THES: "Labour fails to boost numbers". One more:

"Ministers meddle at their peril with the perks of the middle class" - a timeless assertion made only last month.

You can go much further back - and I fear you will be able to go much further forward. No government has been brave enough to tackle the problems at the heart of our education system from secondary level upwards: it is elitist, deeply conservative, fails to serve the needs of too many of its customers, and has too narrow a view of what education is. Apart from all of this, some of it is OK.

Education secretary Charles Clarke told the Association of Colleges conference in November that further education institutions were vital to the goal of giving half of all 18 to 30-year-olds experience of higher education by 2010. He is right. It will not happen without the colleges.

The target is necessary despite the truth of the claims that the real problems are more about technical qualifications than the need for more graduates. We need significant improvement in the numbers and levels of qualification for those already working, but there is not a necessary inconsistency in the two aims. Why does our higher education system decree that it is possible to take a degree in pottery but not one in carpentry?

What is vital, both to the achievement of the target and to the benefits that are assumed to come from it, is that our perceptions of higher education change and that we challenge long-held assumptions about the institutional arrangements to deliver it.

Solihull College is comparable to many general colleges. We have 2,000 higher education students (on top of 34,000 in further education) taking seven full-time and four part-time degrees, 16 higher national diplomas, 12 higher national certificates, teacher training, or counselling diplomas and a range of professional qualifications. We have no aspirations to become a higher education institution. Our job is further education, but we need to offer higher qualifications. We are meeting demand. Our staff teach higher education on the same terms and conditions as they teach further education, and our results match those of our six partner universities.

In 1994, about 12 per cent of higher education students in England studied in a college. Now, colleges deliver about 15 per cent of higher education, and the figure will rise much higher when we start to take foundation degrees seriously.

But foundation degrees will not take off if we leave responsibility for them with the universities. That is to invite the same fate as befell the benighted diplomas in higher education, which had a short, sickly life. The proper place for foundation degrees is in the colleges, and - I owe this concept to David Robertson, of Liverpool John Moores University - their validation and quality needs to be overseen by a body such as the old Council for National Academic Awards. This would address the real needs of the economy and customers, and we will need more humility in recognising those needs than is evident in most universities.

We must redefine higher education. Further education, which is much more about adult education than about 16 to 19-year-olds, should be part of the redefinition. The colleges have a distinctive character, in which student support and individual attention is emphasised, and in which access, to further and to higher education, is part of the core business. The real diversity is in further education.

If we are to hit the participation target, and if we care equally about the educational experience of the other 50 per cent and those aged over 30, we will need all the colleges' experience and new partnership arrangements. We need not takeovers in the guise of mergers, but integrated lateral connections, with cumulative credit-based assessment, that stimulate demand and success, and that pool resources and diverse strengths. These partnerships of equals will challenge deeply ingrained assumptions.

If we do not do this, we will not succeed, but will go on pretending that A levels are the bedrock of our civilisation and of our university-entrance systems, that university autonomy is sacred, and that academic qualifications are the only ones that matter. Research funding may be essential - but so is social inclusion. If you want to reform the system, not perpetuate it, do not ask most vice-chancellors.

Colin Flint is principal of Solihull College.

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