Higher Education: Outposts of better learning: Living in a remote area need not prevent you from getting a university education, reports Liz Heron

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THE GROWTH of higher education courses in remote rural areas of England under franchise agreements between universities and further education colleges is continuing, while more populous areas see a sharp fall in new franchises and the future of some courses is put in doubt.

Four universities yesterday announced that their bids for a total pounds 3.58m in core funding from the Higher Education Funding Council England (HEFCE) for higher education in 'geographical outposts' and for diploma science and engineering courses had been successful. They will be setting up courses tailored to social and economic needs in Cumbria, Cornwall and Lincolnshire - all counties without universities.

The University of East Anglia will launch a four-year social work degree in collaboration with Norfolk College of Arts and Technology; De Montfort University, Leicester, will launch a diploma in combined science at Boston College in Lincolnshire; the University of Central Lancashire will set up diplomas in forestry and environmental land management at Newton Rigg College in Cumbria; and Plymouth University will launch a diploma in environmental monitoring at Cornwall College.

The two-year funding will provide 2,400 extra student places. Ten per cent of the money is being awarded for courses in remote areas; the scientific and vocational character of successful courses indicates the likely direction of franchising growth in the short and medium term. The Government's decision to cut student fees - which are charged to the Treasury - for non-laboratory subjects by 30 per cent this year and drastically slow down HEFCE-funded expansion has cut short a flurry of growth in franchised business studies, social science and humanities courses. John Bird, a researcher at the University of the West of England who is surveying franchising links, said: 'It simply may not be viable to run a social science or business studies franchise at the new funding level.'

Institutions that have rushed into large-scale franchising of such courses on the basis of student fees only - that is, without HEFCE funding - have been put into a particularly difficult position by the cut in fees.

However, the franchises for Cornwall, Lincolnshire and Cumbria build on solid franchising arrangements established by universities with a strong commitment to their respective regions. None of the franchised courses offered by the University of Central Lancashire or by Plymouth University is on a fees-only basis, and Central Lancashire's Cumbria degree programme, which involves six FE colleges in Cumbria, will see modest overall growth in 1993-94.

The University of East Anglia is increasing from 15 to 20 per cent the share of intake coming from its region through links with 10 colleges in Norfolk and Suffolk. Jennifer Owen, UEA's projects director for rural access programmes said: 'This is about improving the educational lot of people in the region. UEA has been around 30 years: it is not in the business of power-building.'

Control over courses in the remote areas is increasingly being devolved to colleges: Central Lancashire has gone a step beyond the typical franchise deal to work out 'collaborative' arrangements with three FE colleges, in which the design and content of courses is jointly devised by a team of college and university staff. Teaching is parcelled out accordingly. Emergent courses, such as a diploma in forestry management at Newton Rigg College in Cumbria, combine the specialisms of the college (forestry) with that of the university (business and management).

UEA has formed a partnership with Suffolk College, which already has a portfolio of higher education courses, in which the college has full control of academic development of franchised courses while the university merely oversees and validates arrangements.

'We are building Suffolk College up into a higher education institution for Suffolk and are sufficiently happy with their quality assurance arrangements to allow them to get on with development of academic programmes,' Ms Owen said. The university is providing funds for a research base to be built up at the college. Likewise, Plymouth University has a five-year plan for Cornwall College, which involves the college acquiring higher education courses in subjects suited to local economic needs, such as tourism, marine technology and information technology.

The pattern revealed by a survey of franchising schemes and plans in 1991 by the Access and Community Education Services at the University of North London is for the college to deliver the first year of courses, with degrees most popular, followed by diploma courses and 'foundation years'. In these, students take a preparatory course which counts as part of the degree in the awarding of maintenance grants and guarantees entry to the franchising university.

But franchising is being used in a growing variety of ways: Suffolk College teaches one module of an MA in education under franchise, while the University of Plymouth has set up links with art and design colleges across Devon to build up a comprehensive art and design degree. There is also a growing tendency among more distant franchises for two or more years of a course to be taught at the FE college.

(Photograph omitted)

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