The Happy coupling of further and higher education could give birth to a funding council merger
The Dearing committee has officially committed itself to addressing the relationship be-tween higher and further education, raising the possibility of a merger between funding councils for the two sectors.
The committee says it is examining "a number of options". But while spokesmen refuse to rule out merger of the funding councils, they play down its importance.
Tony Millns, committee spokes-man, said: "As far as we are concerned there is an issue about the overlap of higher and further education and the best way forward. Abolition of the higher and further education funding councils is not uppermost in most people's minds as they are merely mechanisms."
The "bigger picture" is more important than the detail. Wider economic and social changes are forcing reassessment of the shape of post-compulsory education in the United Kingdom. There are concerns, not least from employers, that the UK may be turning out too many graduates when the economy actually needs more people with intermediate, vocational qualifications and skills.
The committee will consider the growing importance of meeting employer needs, the possible end of the three-year degree in favour of cheaper two-year courses with enhanced opportunities for continuing professional development, and the role of lifelong learning.
Mr Millns said that among the options being considered is a system whereby students spend time working towards a degree at both college and university. One variant, the so-called two-plus-two system, allows students to spend the first two years of their course in a college working for a diploma and then perhaps moving to a university to complete a degree.
Mr Millns said that other variants of two-plus-two are being considered. Such schemes' flexibility and accessibility are thought to be potentially important in widening participation in higher education, particularly for non-traditional learners and adult returners.
One problem is that with no overall regulation, local agreements have led to a diverse array of qualifications, modules, credit accumulation and transfer frameworks - potentially confusing for students, as the 1996 report The FE-HE Interface: A UK Perspective, commissioned by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, notes. The amount of higher education carried out in further education institutions remains relatively small, about 13 per cent. But it is growing. The Association of Colleges estimates that about 40 per cent of home entrants to English university degree courses have been through further education. The Dearing committee is considering how best to proceed with this collaboration to the benefit of both sectors while clarifying the confusion of provision. This is unlikely to be easy.
Both the further and higher education funding councils for England favour separate funding councils, although HEFCE says there may be growing pressure to change the funding structure of the interface "as it becomes increasingly more relevant to the future shape of HE". Yet some college heads believe that effective planning by a single body is a better way of realising a truly learning society. Bearing in mind differences in scale, the Welsh funding councils may offer an intermediate step forward. The two councils for its further and higher education sectors - a fraction of the size of their English equivalents - share the same executive and certain services. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales says that this arrangement has led to a "growing sense of partnership". Chief executive John Andrews said: "My answer to the question is that clearly the two sectors could be served by a common council, but perhaps not yet."
Northern Ireland's 17 further education colleges, which are run by the province's five education and library boards with earmarked funding from the Department of Education for Northern Ireland, are set for incorporation later this year, with administrative control shifting directly to DENI.
The province has no higher education funding council, with the two universities also funded by DENI, but the Northern Ireland Higher Education Council advises Government in the light of HEFCE decisions.
NAMES OF THE GAME
Prepares students for higher education and is normally taught in a further education college. Usually validated by consortia of higher and further education institutions. On completion students receive a nationally recognised certificate.
Associate college arrangement
Similar to a franchise, but tends to link particular colleges over a range of provision rather than just covering a particular course.
Traditionally meant to prepare students whose qualifications were acceptable for higher education but not appropriate for their chosen course. Now tends to be for students with non-traditional qualifications.
Franchised courses are wholly or partly designed, owned and funded by a higher education institution but delivered through a further education college. Students are registered by the franchiser.
Since incorporation in 1993, mergers between further and higher education institutions have been effectively takeovers by the higher education institution and all involve specialist colleges.
Has a lot of higher education work. The Further Education Funding Council is its main funding source, but its higher education role is crucial.
Students take part of a higher education programme in a further education college and, if successful, move to a higher education institution to finish the course. The college is funded directly from the HEFCE or in a franchise arrangement from the higher education institution.
Must be given by a higher education institution to a further education college for any degree course it wishes to deliver.