One of the biggest reorganisations of further education in England may lead to the creation of Britain's first US-style community college system.
Among the options being considered by Nottinghamshire Learning and Skills Council for the overhaul of further education in Greater Nottingham would bring the city's five colleges together into a single community college.
A board would be set up to govern the new multi-campus "super college", which would have about 60,000 students on courses ranging from basic skills to foundation degrees.
The proposal is the result of an LSC-led area review of post-16 education and training in Nottingham. Similar reviews are being conducted by LSCs across the country.
The Nottingham review concludes that the city's further education structure needs radical reorganisation to address low participation rates, below-average quality and performance levels, poor accommodation and weak financial health in some colleges.
Pat Morgan-Webb, principal of one of the affected institutions, New College Nottingham, supports the community college model as the best way forwards to serve the city's economic and social needs. She said her institution had been working with US community colleges in Chicago and San Diego for a number of years to see how the advantages of the US system could be applied in the UK.
She said: "Creating a community college model would allow us to develop an investment strategy for the whole district that would be more coherent and less dependent on the whims and vagaries of particular further education corporations. It would allow the new college to act as a partner for change in the economic and social development of the area."
Ms Morgan-Webb said that a community college would be better placed to forge links with the city's universities than five institutions acting on their own.
"The creation of a coherent community college system that had a big chunk of higher education programmes within it would articulate well with the higher education system in Nottingham," she said.
Rob Valentine, chief executive of Nottinghamshire LSC, said two other models were being considered as part of a consultation exercise. The LSC preferred a two-college model, while others were backing a three-college collaborative network.
The LSC expects a new system to be in place no later than 2005.
Model serves the community
Further education colleges in the UK hoping to offer more higher education courses could learn lessons from the US community college system, says a report published by the Council for Industry and Higher Education, writes Tony Tysome.
The 1,600 community colleges in the US enrol 5.4 million students a year and account for 44 per cent of the country's undergraduates, Their success in widening participation in higher education and at lower-level vocational training is partly the result of their having clear missions, proper funding, and qualification and governance structures "that appear to avoid the danger of academic drift and departure from meeting local employer and vocational needs", says the report, which was written by San Diego Community College District chancellor Augustine Gallego.
The report shows how the San Diego Community College Network is involved in business networks that allow the college district to create courses in response to and in partnership with local companies.
This has helped it develop a good balance between general further education courses and focused programmes that were formed under contract with local employers. In the UK, there have been difficulties striking an appropriate balance.
The report's author said the future success of community colleges depended on their ability to strengthen links with universities and industry.
They must offer "strong university transfer programmes for future scientists, engineers and business and technical leaders to gain foundations in higher learning that will help them, their companies and their communities to be successful in the economy," he said.