Who wants to do an HND when you can do a degree?

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In his report, Sir Ron Dearing advocated growth in higher education below degree level. That means more two-year vocational courses, Higher National Diplomas and Certificates in subjects such as engineering, catering and beauty therapy. He also called for the courses to be increasingly concentrated in FE colleges. But is there evidence of students flocking to sign up for them and should they be located in further education? Lucy Hodges reports.

The University of Teesside, a former polytechnic, has its roots deep in Middlesbrough and the gritty industrial conurbation that surrounds it. It calls itself the opportunity university and has gone out of its way to take higher education to the people, especially those without A- levels. During the 1990s it franchised HND courses in further education colleges in neighbouring towns - Redcar, Stockton, Billingham and Kirby - as part of a partnership programme.

That means students can do a University of Teesside HND in business and financial services at Stockton and Billingham College or an HND in business and hospitality at Middlesbrough College. The trouble is they have not been rushing to enrol. "We're experiencing a decline in demand for the HND and so are many of the new universities," says Mark White, deputy academic registrar. "Some new universities are withdrawing completely."

It's a truth universally acknowledged that one cannot buck the laws of the market - as universities such as Teesside are finding to their cost. Students, according to many observers, want to have a BA or BSc after their name. They see degrees as the gold standard and lesser qualifications will not do, especially when they find they can enrol on a degree course with the same qualifications as for an HND.

Not only has Teesside had difficulty recruiting on to its HND programmes, it has had special problems with students on its franchised courses in FE colleges - precisely the area in which Sir Ron wanted to see the growth. Eighteen-year-olds, it discovered, want a higher education experience. They seek the libraries, clubs, discos, sports and frenzied politicking of university campuses.

For example, Anthony Marcus, a Teesside student doing a franchised HND at Stockton and Billingham College, was quoted in a university publication thus: "Most students come to university for the university life - living in a communal house five minutes away from the campus. But franchise students usually end up living in the suburbs with the landlady from hell. Not exactly the university experience, is it?" Other franchised students had trouble getting to and from the university's HQ in Middlesbrough at night; they felt cut off and said communication was poor.

National figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service confirm the decline in students opting to study HNDs. In 1992 numbers stood at 24,723 (figures for former polytechnics only). They increased the following year but fell in 1994, recovering a little in 1995 and falling again in 1996 - to 21,786. Many expect numbers to have taken a big hit this year because of the rush to jump on degree courses before tuition fees are introduced - but the statistics have not been issued yet.

Most experts deplore that slide and support Sir Ron's sentiment - that the United Kingdom doesn't train enough people for technician and apprentice- level jobs in contrast with our Continental competitors, and that we should do more about it. It makes sense therefore to put more money into further education, which educates students more cheaply and reaches those who have missed out on qualifications earlier.

There is no research, however, to show that the demand exists either from students or employers. According to Helen Connor, research fellow at the Institute of Employment Studies, Sussex University: "There isn't hard evidence of a strong expanding demand from employers for HNDs. When it comes to recruitment, you find employers are not recruiting them."

And the Confederation for British Industry - in its reply to the Dearing Report - said its consultations did not find increased demand among member companies for new qualifications below degree level.

While Leslie Wagner, principal of Leeds Metropolitan University, accepts the dearth of evidence, he distinguishes between an HND as a final qualification and an HND as a stepping stone. More than half of those who embark on HNDs move on to degree courses. "There is a demand for HNDs but it's an access route for people who underperformed at school," he says.

All of which leads Teesside to conclude that the Dearing analysis is far too simplistic. In fact, it is crass, says Mr White, because it doesn't take account of regional and economic needs nor of the rich tapestry of partnerships between FE and universities which exist at present. Teesside has made forceful respresentations to the Department for Education and Employment in its reply to the Dearing Report.

Even representatives of further education colleges, which stand to gain from any big injection of money into sub-degree work, are sceptical. Alan Coupe, of the executive of the lecturers' union NATFHE and head of the centre for science at Norwich College, says: "I am not totally convinced that there is a huge extra market for sub-degree work. There may be some room for expansion in some areas but that's about it."

The paragraph in Dearing calling for sub-degree courses to be built up in further education also argued against expanding degree or postgraduate work in that sector. That worries FE colleges which run degrees alongside HNDs. "Take ourselves," says Coupe. "If I said we will only be putting on the first couple of years of our degree courses (the HND part), students would have to go elsewhere. But most of our people in Norwich aren't mobile. They would drop out, and would not go on to university."

Vic Seddon, principal of Croydon College, argues that taking away degrees from further education would mean it wouldn't even be worth running HNDs. "There would be no reason to put on HNDs because, without the impetus of being able to move on to a degree course, students wouldn't achieve," he says. "This proposal will destroy the progression from HNDs to degrees. It will destroy the institutions."

Bradford and Ilkley Community College runs more directly-funded higher education than any other FE college. While its principal Paul Gallagher is at one with the Dearing philosophy of broadening access and ensuring opportunity exists close to where people live, he is worried about concentrating sub-degrees in further education and degrees in higher education.

The proposal fails to recognise how vital sub-degree work is to the viability of new universities, he says. "It also fails to recognise that universities are currently scrabbling to recruit students, so much so that their entry qualifications are being lowered to the point in some instances that we would not accept in further education."

Both Croydon and Bradford and Ilkley have been forced to drop their engineering HNDs through lack of demand but other programmes are thriving, in particular beauty therapy, software engineering and early childhood studies (Bradford and Ilkley) and art and design, and health care (Croydon). The most successful courses are often tied in closely with the needs of local employers.

Many spokesmen for further education are unequivocally thrilled at the Dearing proposal and at the Government's enthusiasm for further education. Roger Ward, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, argues that market demand is there for vocational education. "It might vary from place to place but our most recent survey shows that colleges are turning away students because of the cash crisis in further education," he says.

Another optimist is Dick Evans, principal of Stockport College, who regards the Dearing proposal as splendid news. There's definitely a need for more growth at sub-degree level, he asserts, but many colleges are struggling with HND recruitment this year. The reason is that new universities are poaching college students a few weeks into HND courses and whisking them off to their campuses. He has written to Brian Fender, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council, to complain.

"Universities' tactics in poaching and preying on us are legendary," he says. However, Dick Evans won't name names. All he will say is that Stockport College lost HND students in art and design to universities and is now 15 below target in that subject area.

Disentangling fact from fiction in a world where education institutions are fighting for students and for finite amounts of money is almost impossible. Bitter turf wars are breaking out all over. The "old" universities are complaining the Government is locating too much "lifelong learning" in further education when they think much of it will be professional people wanting to update their skills in higher education.

No one really knows what the market is demanding. That's why Moira Carr, who works at the Belfast Institute and is vice-president of NATFHE, says further education should not be trying to build barricades round sub-degree level work. Growth in access will mean growth in further education but that should also be good news for the universities too.

Sub-degree courses at a glance

Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) are taken by students who normally have at least one A-level pass and are seeking a vocational qualification. They last two years and are typically in subjects such as engineering, computing, catering, business, and art and design. Students may move on to "top up" with a degree in the same subject. Some HNDs are highly specialised. Courses are developed in conjunction with local industry and, it is hoped, are directly related to the job market. Higher National Certificates (HNCs) are the part-time equivalent of HNDs. In addition there are Diplomas and Certificates of Higher Education, but they have not taken off in the way that was intended. They are effectively intermediate degrees. In universities that break degrees down into 360 credits, a DipHE will be awarded for 240 credits and a CertHE for 120 credits.