Monday, 29 April 2013

HE in FE and the evolution of Quality Assurance in parterships

I work in a College which is primarily dedicated to Further Education, but which in the last few years has begun to offer Higher Education degree courses to students, which we develop ourselves and are 'validated' by a University. One of my jobs here (besides teaching literature and language) is to draft policies and regulations for the management of Higher Education within the Further Education College. This is a rather challenging role, partly because the whole issue of regulating HE is inherently complex and partly because it means a series of negotiations and compromises with a College regulatory infrastructure more dedicated to meeting the requirements of Ofsted than the QAA.

Another reason why I find it challenging is because I find it pretty tough to switch suddenly from teaching Children's Literature on day to pouring over intellectual property policies (or some such riveting subject) the next.

Of course in spite of the fact that they have a numptie like me coordinating documents for them, I do need to keep reminding myself that the relative rigour with which my College develops its own internal HE policies is very encouraging. Every aspect of HE delivery is considered with a carefulness and a willingness to make (sometimes expensive) changes wherever standards or security of provision demand. I have worked in some other parts of the HE in FE sector where the approach to regulations and quality assurance has been more along the lines of 'well, you will just have paper over the cracks as best you can'.

Such an approach is, of course, a recipe for disaster. The issue of intellectual property is a good example of this. Like most institutions of its kind my College had a fairly standard IP regulation which ensures it can retain ownership of any intellectual property it has paid for through the salary if its employees. However, when the specific role of an HE academic is considered in relation to this standard IP model, a conflict emerges. While there is certainly an alternative argument to be made, it is commonly built into HE contracts that academic staff are required to be active researchers, and the convention of an academic career is that the ownership of research or publications is within the rights of the researcher (often delegated by their employer) to transfer to whatever funding body or publication is providing the research opportunity.

In other words (to use an example given to me by somebody who actually knows about this kind of thing), imagine working as an academic and being asked by Palgrave to write a book for them. Now image how Palgrave would react if you told them that the copyright of the book would have to be owned by the College or University that employed you.

Similar problems can emerge with funding bodies, and without addressing the conflict between the research requirements of active academics and the standard approach to IP common in most FE Colleges, problems arise. Funding for research will be diverted elsewhere. Academics will feel constrained and unable to pursue their research - which will generally lead to them quickly looking to move on (itself impacting upon teaching and learning by generating a culture of high staff attribution levels). The College will have little scope to develop a research profile or reputation, while the contract of employment for HE staff in an FE College becomes effectively impossible to fulfil: How can you be required to research, and yet at the same time fulfil contractual IP obligations which preclude many common avenues of research?

This is just one example - but I could name countless others where there is an inherent conflict of interests between FE and HE regulatory approaches that can directly impact upon things like staff retention and academic standards. More immediately problematic ones arise when you look at regulations for things like course development, assessment or committee structures.

The insticts of some institutions to apply a plaster to such potentially damaging conflicts, rather than to restructure their quality assurance mechanisms, is perfectly understandable. Where HE is provided in an FE College, the HE will still normally constitute a very small percentage of the College's work - and with the ever-present reality of Ofted's increasingly onerous and shifting demands having a more direct relation to the survival of the institution, it would be hard to blame the beleagured quality managers in some FE College's for seeking the least demanding solution to any HE problem.

Of course, there is a strong argument that this is an area where Universities that validate HE courses in FE Colleges need to take some responsibility. Such conflicts do have a clear and direct relationship to the ability of a College to provide a certain standard of provision, and I am not sure that validating Universities have always taken this issue seriously enough. I have at times experienced a certain level of incredulity as to why a validating University was not more closely monitoring the regulatory framework being applied to HE courses, or why there was such variance between regulatory oversight from different Universities? I am currently fortunate to be working somewhere with a firm committment to robust HE provision, but surely the maintainance of certain standards should not be left to the (potentially variable) integrity of the institution but be a tightly monitored requirement enforced by the validating University?

From this perspective, it can only be seen as encouraging that Universities are indeed taking this responsibility more seriously, and imposing a tighter regulatory control. QAA inspections have, over the last ten years or so, been careful to monitor Universities partnership agreements according to the same standards of the University itself - and (quite rightly) the outcomes of such monitoring is being held against the reputation of the University.

At the same time, recent revisions to the QAA 'Quality Code' has placed further emphasis on the responsibilities of the 'Awarding institution', particularly in the section on collaborative partnerships. The previous version of the QAA 'Code of Practice' went some lengths to eliminate the idea of 'equivalence' between collaborating partners. "[T]here is no longer a need" it boldly stated, "to find ways of expressing the 'equivalence' of collaborative programmes". This, it argued, enabled the focus to be on the 'ends' rather than the 'means'.

In complete contrast, the new 'Quality Code' dedicates a full indicator to 'Responsibility for, and equivalence of, academic standards', and in this section "each awarding body" is categorically given "responsibility for ensuring that its own academic standards are maintained irrespective of the requirements of any partner awarding bodies".

In other words, Universities need to start getting more control of things.

The response of some Universities has been to move toward limiting the autonomy of FE Colleges in terms of its management of HE programmes: Ensuring that the regulations and procedures for the management of HE are the same as those of the University itself. On the whole this can only benefit students in the HE in FE sector, as it ensures there is a more consistent approach to the standards of HE provision in FE instutions. So it is a change that is certainly something to be broadly welcomed.

However... (you knew that was coming, didn't you?)

There is a potential here for a different kind of conflict, and for a threat to the distinctiveness of HE in FE sector provision. This provision is something which the government has been actively encouraging for some time now, because FE Colleges have been viewed as the institutions better equipped to widen participation in a manner which cost effective and employer-driven. One of the reasons for this is that FE Colleges are often characterised by being integrally connected to their local communities, and their students are much more likely to come from the same community in which the College exists.

These students are, at the same time, much more likely to come with a set of academic credentials that at many Universities would see them marched right round the revolving door and out the other side. Traditional students tend not to list FE Colleges at the top of their UCAS applications, and often revert to them only if they have fallen below expectations in other applications. At the same time, more local students returning to education after a long absence, or with an educational experience from another country, will often prefer to attend a smaller institution with a stronger emphasis on pastoral support.

It is this combination of a stronger appeal to local students, and to 'non-traditional' students (a term I detest because it seems to commonly imply students without a set of A-levels, professional parents, English as a first language and/or white skin), that makes HE in FE distinctive. In my own College, 64% of students come from black or ethnic minorities - a significantly higher percentage than the national average of 18% - many of whom will have English as a second language and many of whom will not have had the opportunity to study at a University (ECU, 2011).

FE Colleges have come to specialise then in students who are either from the local community and looking to progress to HE within the same institution, or students who simply couldn't get offered a place anywhere else. Neither case precludes the potential of that student to achieve, but accepting them does place a greater onus of responsibility on the institution to support and build them up so that they can catch up with the pack from a standing start.

In other words, what works for a University might not necessarily work for an FE College.

Let me give you another example. The data from my own College shows that compared to national averages we have a significantly lower than average retention and achievement rate for the first year of study - but the same data for second and third years is actually marginally higher. Additionally, we have a higher percentage of first class degrees than the national average.

My College's first bunch of graduates

In spite of the fact that ECU research (2011) shows achievement rates for white students at 66%, and BME (Black and minority ethnicity) students at between 46% and 38%, it is difficult not to conclude that although our students may struggle to begin with, once they have acclimatised to study they can achieve at as high a rate as anybody.

Such a significant difference in achievement clearly has as much to do with the manner of provision than with the issues of habitus to which they are often attributed.

Of course, the low retention rates for the first year mean that despite our level 2 and 3 data, our overall statistics are still disappointing - but if we can find mechanisms which can more effectively support students through their first year, then there is some suggestion that we can improve on that.

There are a number of ways in which regulations can provide those mechanisms without reducing the standards of national frameworks, and can recognise that providing a softer entry into HE can support support more of our students to high levels of achievement. This might involve different requirements for entry-level qualifications, mechanisms for enabling progression into the second year, adjustments to allowable time periods for deferment or withdrawal, mitigations, etc.. Such changes might not be always in line with other institutions, but this merely reflects that fact that different institutions will have different student profiles and different challenges to address.

There are many reasons to be glad about the extent to which the QAA are holding validating Universities more accountable for the standards of partnership programmes - but it would be a shame if it meant that unique environments like HE in FE could not find appropriate and rigorous mechanisms to support their students in a way which addresses challenges which are often local and specific.


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