The forecast for Gloucestershire: sunny, open and collaborative

Local college links pay a places bonus as v-c puts storms behind him. David Matthews reports

March 29, 2012

Synchronised learning: Gloucestershire will work with local colleges while continuing to recruit nationally

A former higher education civil servant who last year became vice-chancellor of the University of Gloucestershire has set out his institution's plans to collaborate with local further education colleges in spite of government policies designed to increase competition between the sectors.

Universities and further education colleges have in effect been pitched against each other in a competition for the 20,000 "margin" places set aside for institutions that charge annual undergraduate tuition fees of less than £7,500 in 2012-13.

Some universities are even planning to withdraw higher education places from colleges in order to protect their own intake.

But asked whether the new market-like system would create competition between the sectors, Stephen Marston - who took on the vice-chancellor's role in August 2011 - said: "Not as we see it here in Gloucestershire."

In preparing its bid for margin places to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the university worked with Gloucestershire College and South Gloucestershire and Stroud College, he explained.

It won 382 places, one of the highest allocations made by Hefce to a single institution.

Gloucestershire was one of 24 higher education institutions that dropped its average tuition fee, including waivers, to below £7,500 in order to bid for the margin places.

Part of Gloucestershire's pitch to the funding council was that it would collaborate with the two colleges in delivering the places.

It will work with the institutions to explain to students how they can progress from higher education at college to university, and employ a new programme manager to help raise awareness.

Mr Marston - who until he took up the post at Gloucestershire was helping implement government policy as director general for higher education funding and reform at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills - said it could be easier for students to begin their higher education at college.

He added that students needed to be offered more choice, including the option to live at home while they study.

However, Mr Marston said that although progression from local colleges was one way for the institution to fill places, Gloucestershire was not just a "county university" and would continue to recruit nationally and internationally.

Recent figures for 2012-13 undergraduate entry suggest that Gloucestershire, which gained university status in 2001, has fared well compared with others in the sector. Degree programme applications dropped by just 4.9 per cent compared with the previous year. The average drop for English institutions was 8.5 per cent.

This may be an early sign that Gloucestershire will also be able to put recent much-publicised financial problems behind it.

In 2008-09, it recorded a £6.3 million budget deficit, but the most recent accounts for 2010-11 showed a £5.1 million surplus.

When he started, Mr Marston promised that staff would be able to give him a "warts and all" view of the troubled two years in which two vice-chancellors resigned and the university lost an employment tribunal case to a whistleblower who said she was sidelined after raising concerns about the institution's finances.

At open meetings held with staff in September last year and again last month, "people felt strongly about many of the issues", he said.

Mr Marston said that he was confident that staff could now be "open and honest and frank" about their concerns but added that "for any organisation it takes time for people to believe that".

Gloucestershire is now working on a "new culture" and has a new director of human resources, he added.

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