John Widdowson believes that part-time learners have been forgotten in the higher education debate
The debate on the future of higher education in further education colleges has centred in the past few months on top-up fees, namely whether colleges will follow universities in charging the full £3,000.
But the debate has failed to consider the interests of one significant group of students - the thousands of people who combine study for a first higher level qualification with work. At a time when the need for higher level skills has never been greater, and when employers are being urged to invest more in the skills needed for a knowledge-based economy, part-timers have been neglected.
Colleges have a long tradition of meeting the skills needs of local employers and focusing on more specialised areas of the curriculum where universities do not have the expertise or the interest. As such, colleges have a clear role in providing for part-time students by offering programmes that lead to foundation degrees and final honours, as well as those leading to qualifications awarded by professional bodies. Added to this should be the thousands of students funded by the Learning and Skills Council.
So how should colleges and their partners in the university sector respond to this? Next week, the Association of Colleges will discuss the issue at its annual higher education conference.
To begin with, the value and legitimacy of part-time study must be recognised. In parallel with the debate on the worth of research and scholarly activity, there must be recognition that higher level vocational skills will play a greater part in defining what we mean by higher education. Validating institutions will need to develop new means of recognising higher skills, defined in terms that will reflect the applied nature of what is learnt and its effectiveness in tackling real-life issues.
There must also be clear progression routes for part-time learners transferring their vocational qualifications in further education or on an apprenticeship to higher education courses. Students will expect an approach that recognises the skills they have developed and does not undervalue them with the unthinking imposition of traditional "academic" disciplines.
Funding must also be improved. If, as anticipated, institutions choose to raise a greater part of the fee by raising the contribution from the employer or the student and if that fee is to be based on the higher figure chargeable to full-time students, employers may become less willing to meet all or even part of the bill.
The "bursary wars" many see developing in higher education may be mirrored by a price war between part-time courses, creating uncertainty for both colleges and universities. In a situation where the burden of meeting course costs may fall increasingly on the student, part-time learners should have the same access to loans and bursaries as full-timers.
Part-time study has never been an easy option, but in an era of student debt it may provide an attractive alternative.
Students will be equipped with vocational skills and knowledge to develop their careers, emerging, at the end of the process, fully qualified and competent but unburdened by the scale of debt that their full-time contemporaries must accept.
John Widdowson is principal of New College Durham.