"The campus experience for the American higher education student is one to be envied," says a report prepared for the committee under Sir Ron Dearing, which is looking at reform of the British system.
But it is not simply the elite bits of the US system that cause British mouths to fall open. American community colleges, like British further education colleges, educate adults and young people who want to change career, update skills or who may have missed out on higher education first time around. They do so locally - where people live and work - and relatively economically, often in crowded classrooms and with poor student:teacher ratios. Where the American colleges differ is that they are an integral and easily understood part of the system.
They enable people to get a toe on America's higher education ladder. By taking courses and building up credits, students can acquire what is called an associate degree at a community college at a relatively low cost ($1,000 to $2,000 a year for tuition). Credits are points awarded for courses successfully completed. Such degrees take two years and are either vocational or academic. With such qualifications people can either go straight into work or into a university where they complete the final two years of a bachelor's degree.
"The key merit of this system is that it stimulates demand for higher education," says Chris Webb, principal of Handsworth College in Birmingham. "Poor students in America will pay out of pocket to do an associate degree and the reason is that there is clear understanding what that degree represents - 60 credits. A bachelor's degree is another 60 credits. The pathways are clear and the qualifications have value."
David Melville, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council, agrees. "One advantage is that American community colleges provide a high- status, middle-level set of local institutions that people turn to as their first choice for learning," he says. "All Americans are studying for something at their community college."
The problem with Britain, by contrast, is that further education is a mystery to many people. Offering a hotch-potch of vocational, professional, adult and the full range of educational qualifications - NVQs, HNCs, HNDs, access courses, GCSEs, A-levels and degrees - it has no clear identity, little status and doesn't capture the imagination in the same way.
How can people get a handle on a sector which offers everything from NVQs in tyre-fitting to certificates in underwater basket-weaving, asks Mr Webb.
Such thinking lies behind the Dearing committee's examination of the issue. If more people can gain access to higher education through Britain's 448 further education colleges, it might also be a way to educate larger numbers more cheaply (the unit cost of further education is about half that of higher education), particularly at a time when the Government is loath to see any increase in student numbers beyond the current 32 per cent participation rate.
The reason why such an idea would save money, the argument goes, is that it would dovetail with a funding reform: students would receive their entitlement to free tuition only in the first two years of an American- style two-plus-two degree course (two years in further education and two years at university).
For the final two years they would be on their own, funded by loans, scholarships, part-time work, their parents or employers. At a stroke the first two years in further education would acquire more status.
It is envisaged that a change of this nature would go hand-in-hand with more flexible modes of learning. Further education, as well as educating people at a lower unit cost, enables students to study full- or part-time, in short bursts, or via distance learning. Further education colleges pride themselves on being extremely responsive to their market.
It could also coincide with reform to the higher education curriculum, making it broader and less specialised. Or it could tie in with the Higher Education Quality Council's desire to see a common threshold of standards for undergraduates.
The idea of a two-plus-two degree is not new. It has in fact been bubbling away in higher education policy circles for 20 years. During the 1980s the Council for National Academic Awards produced a paper containing such a recommendation.
The essential pre-requisite is credit transfer and accumulation. Without systems for equating the worth of one qualification, or one portion of qualification, with another, it is difficult to see how students can move from one institution to another. The Americans do this by what they call articulation agreements between community colleges and state universities. Students working on associate degrees at community colleges are given full credit towards a bachelor's degree at the state university.
Three states - Florida, Maryland and New York - guarantee places at state universities to all associate degree graduates from community colleges by law. The effect has been to double the intake to bachelor's degrees.
By contrast, Virginia is not as generous. It simply encourages transfer from two-year community colleges to state universities. The result is that many fewer students - only 10 per cent - transfer in that state.
John Stoddart, principal of Sheffield Hallam University, chairman of the HEQC and a member of the group commissioned by Dearing to look at America, thinks these agreements are one of the most impressive features of the American system. They give community colleges self-confidence and clout, he says.
Further education colleges in Britain are already engaged in ventures which blur the old divide between further and higher education, notably franchising, whereby students are enrolled with a university but taught at a linked further education college.
The contrast with the American system is, however, stark. Universities here control the content of courses and standards, whereas in America community colleges come to articulation agreements as equals.
Some colleges are hybrids. One, Stockport College of Further and Higher Education in Cheshire, runs everything from foundation courses to degrees. In addition it has its own two-plus-two degree arrangements with universities in Manchester and with Salford University, which entails students doing two years of an HND at Stockport and the last two years at a university.
So, you could argue that the American model is already happening here. As Chris Webb, principal of Handsworth College, puts it: "I think what we will see more and more is local deals emerging between colleges and universities which will open up new and positive pathways for people."
But the enthusiasts think reform won't take off quickly unless it is given a boost by Sir Ron Dearing. They are hoping Sir Ron will explore the idea of credit transfer and accumulation as well as the need for legislation to ensure students have the right to move from further to higher education.
And Tony Melia, former chief inspector of the FEFC, would also like Sir Ron, founding chairman of Camelot, to emulate Florida's scheme for using the state lottery to fund one-quarter of higher education in that state. Why not educate the British people courtesy of the National Lottery?n
The American way in the Midlands
American-style study, whereby adults spend two years of a degree course in a further education college, followed by two years at university, is already in place in the Midlands. The programme has been specially designed for people who wish to study locally, and who have not had the chance to go on to higher education. It shows what can be done to increase adult access to degree-level courses.
A total of nine colleges are feeding students through to Warwick University, including Evesham, Rugby, Mid-Warwickshire, North Warwickshire and Hinckley, Solihull, South Birmingham, Stratford, Tile Hill and Coventry Technical College. Students are offered six areas of study: the environment; Europe; theatre, media and text; technology; social studies; and labour studies.
"At Solihull we don't require stringent entry qualifications," says Angela Myers, vice-principal of that college. "Students have to prove to us that they can achieve. If they don't have a couple of A-levels, we will get references from employers or other people, and occasionally we will ask them to write something."
The majority of students graduating from Warwick last summer achieved good 2-1 degrees; one got a firstn
`Strengths I never knew I had'
A mother of two daughters aged nine and seven, Diane Deery has found undertaking a degree at the age of 32 a liberating, if arduous, experience. She is happy to stay up to 2am or 3am to write an essay after putting the children to bed. And it has been worth the effort, she says.
"I have been able to find strengths in myself that I never knew I had," she explains. "This course is something I needed after being at home with children."
A student of social studies in her second year at Solihull College, Mrs Deery left school after O-levels. She came from a traditional working- class family, none of whom had been to university, and was never expected to carry on with her education.
Before enrolling for her two-plus-two degree, she had worked as a buyer for the local health authority and had gained a BTec National diploma in public administration.
She particularly appreciates the help the college gives with study skills, and would recommend such a course to other adults who want to improve their minds and their job prospects. "There should be more provision like this," she saysn
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