Will the virtuous circle be unbroken?

July 23, 2004

Further education must develop its research capability to lead students smoothly to higher education, but how feasible is that? asks Ross Davies.

For many academics, teaching and research are part of a virtuous circle, the one improving the other. Further education colleges have traditionally been concerned almost solely with teaching. But due to concerns about increasing access to higher education, more and more universities have gone into partnership with colleges in the past decade.

For some, this has included not just teaching arrangements but also research.

One of these is Myerscough College in Preston, which specialises in land-based studies. As well as having 1,100 further education students, it offers degree courses to about 700 students under a franchise with the University of Central Lancashire. Such is its success that its principal, John Moverley, is to become associate dean of a new joint faculty of land-based studies being set up at the university. The college has, in partnership with the Agricultural Advisory and Development Service research consultancy, also won a £300,000 award from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to conduct a one-year survey of the trees in England's towns.

Moverley says this success is aided by the HE-FE crossover programme with Central Lancashire. When he arrived five years ago from De Montfort University, Myerscough had 300 degree students. That number has more than doubled, and the college has taken on postgraduates and has attracted fellows from elite universities such as Colleen Macleod, professor of animal welfare at Cambridge University's Veterinary School.

Moverley believes that if further education is to act as a route into higher education, it needs to develop its research capabilities. "Some staff should have research interests of their own," he says, because land-based studies degrees require students to undertake research, and staff need to have an interest in research to supervise this.

Research, of course, requires resources. "We as a college must be able to compete for research funding, on our own or jointly." Moverley would like to see colleges compete equally for research money from funding bodies.

But, generally, their research is funded by the college itself, by business or by the university it is to be working with.

A recent research project for the Higher Education Funding Council for England shows that about 75 higher education institutions are involved in 522 indirect funding agreements with 289 further education institutions, any one of which could produce a joint research effort.

That does not mean that scores of further education colleges will be able to emulate Myerscough. Anne Thompson, vice-principal (curriculum), at Waltham Forest College in London and a member of the report's research team, says: "Institutionally supported research is not common. Further education doesn't have the equivalent of the research assessment exercise, so there's neither a requirement to do research nor any standard financial support for it."

Nonetheless, there has been a rise in research and development work aimed at improving further education practice. The Economic and Social Research Council's £ million Teaching and Learning Research Programme is one of a number of education research projects that cross the divide - £12 million of the total spending is on research projects in post-16 teaching and learning, including projects that involve further education institutions directly or in partnership with higher education institutions.

Still, many remain unconvinced about the scope for colleges to get into research. One university academic with further education experience says: "There's a lot of lip service paid to the research potential of FE colleges, but little is done. There is neither the time nor the money. An academic in a research-intensive university has funding. Then there's the teaching load - I teach 450 hours a year at my university, and a further education lecturer can teach twice that."

On top of that, staff cuts and structural changes in further education in the past decade have meant it is "difficult to keep a steady hand on research". Patrick Ainley, professor of education and training at Greenwich University, believes that a concentration of research funding will mean many universities lose their research capabilities and become, in effect, further education institutions forced to specialise in "competence-based courses such as foundation degrees", which are "increasingly funded through regional development agencies or local learning and skills councils".

He reckons that many of these will go to the wall or merge with other institutions as the research elite raise their fees and "privatise themselves out of the system".

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