Watchdog bites down on HE in FE information

Report highlights required changes to prospectus and online statements. David Matthews reports

July 14, 2011

Further education colleges are regularly being challenged by the Quality Assurance Agency over inconsistencies and inadequacies in the information they provide to prospective higher education students, according to a report.

The findings, which apply to information in prospectuses and on official websites, come after the higher education White Paper put colleges in the lead position to take on many of the 20,000 student places set aside for institutions charging average tuition fees of under £7,500 a year from 2012-13.

The report, Integrated Quality Assurance and Enhancement of Higher Education in Further Education Colleges, says that the public information provided by individual colleges was assessed 123 times between May 2007 and March 2010. In 85 cases, the QAA highlighted changes that were "desirable", "advisable" or "essential".

The authors of the report, Philip Davies, assistant director of higher education at Bournemouth and Poole College, and Jonathan Simmons, director of academic development programmes at the University of the West of England, say that this could reflect concerns about how colleges will cope in the new marketised academy.

"This emphasis on the accuracy of public information is not surprising given the overall direction of government policy," the report says.

The fears over the quality of information come at a time of great opportunity for further education colleges. They are expected to bid for thousands of places that will be auctioned off in 2012-13.

As the majority of colleges plan to charge under £6,000, they will be able to bid for the 20,000 places under the "core-and-margin" system announced in the White Paper.

Nick Davy, higher education policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said his members potentially could take on all 20,000 places, either by expanding existing courses or in some cases by offering higher education provision for the first time.

He added that the association would like to see more than 20,000 places available to lower-cost institutions in the future, something the coalition has indicated it is planning.

College heads also said they wanted to expand their student numbers, although some had grander ambitions than others.

Dave Linnell, chief executive of Cornwall College, which currently teaches the equivalent of 1,700 full-time higher education students, said that in the first year of bidding under the core-and-margin system, his college could "comfortably" grow to 2,000.

"We think there's considerable potential for growth," he said. "Our initial plan before numbers were capped was to grow to 2,000."

However, Noel Otley, principal of Havering College of Further and Higher Education, was more cautious. He said that his institution could expand its current cohort of 1,000 students by no more than 50 in the first year of the new system.

"We have got to be careful how we expand without going hell for leather," he said.

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