Three years ago 4,700 students were studying what are known as franchised higher education courses within further education. But growth has been phenomenal: one survey suggests that 50,000 students may be involved by 1995.
Franchising has grown into a multi-million-pound national and international business, providing higher education - often part time - in local colleges for groups such as women with young families, the unemployed and older people. Worries about teaching quality were pushed aside in the late Eighties and early Nineties as it provided a cheaper way of creating extra higher education places in line with the Government's drive to increase the numbers in higher education.
Franchises between universities and sixth-form colleges are more recent. The arrangement between the applied science departments of Luton Sixth Form College and Luton University began in October and is one of only a handful. The Luton scheme is restricted to first- year students on a modular BSc programme who mix and match their subjects; 32 are studying geology, 41 biology and 37 environmental science.
Paul Pingree, 19, is one of four former students from Luton Sixth Form College in the group, and says he is happy to be back part time. Class sizes are much smaller than at the university and some of the students think the college provides clearer and better-organised teaching. But they would not want to spend any more time there - most spend one morning, some a whole day.
Stephanie Barker, 19, from Doncaster, says: 'You can handle coming back to a sixth-form college for one morning a week, but more than that and it wouldn't be like being at university.'
The first higher education franchise began 10 years ago with two courses in Lancashire, which led to the establishment of the Local Integrated Colleges Scheme (Lincs). This now recruits 2,000 students a year, about half of them mature part-timers, to courses at Central Lancashire University, which start off in 20 local further education colleges.
Mike Abramson, head of combined honours at Central Lancashire University, believes that further education colleges can give more appropriate, and therefore better-quality, degree-level education to mature students because lecturers are more experienced in teaching adults. But it is harder to make the same claim for other kinds of students.
'There are franchises offering full-time degrees to 18-year-old school-leavers who can't get into popular courses in a university. Some are on sites a long way from the university, which are little more than academic overspill estates without the social facilities of the university, where library and information technology facilities are inadequate and where a scholarly ethos is lacking.'
The Luton scheme is not like that. The geology departments at both the college and the university are strong and well resourced. Close links with the university mean that sixth-form students can go there to use specialist equipment.
Frances Stratton, head of the geology department at the sixth-form college and head of its maths, science and technology faculty, is delighted with the success of the scheme, which she attributes partly to personal links between the two staffs - attempts to set up franchises between the university and the college in other subject areas are proving less easy.
Ms Stratton, for instance, studied geology at university with Geoff Notcutt, head of the university's school of geological and environmental sciences. Claire Simpson, one of the sixth-form college teachers on the course, did her geology degree at Luton. 'I trained as a schoolteacher and I never imagined I would be teaching degree-level students on my own ex-course, and yet the move has been quite easy,' she says.
Ms Stratton believes that the college teachers on the degree courses are being enriched by the new experience of teaching undergraduates, and that this is benefiting both the sixth-form students and the
Mr Notcutt sees the sixth-form college and its teachers as an extra resource for his students. The franchise has made it easier to timetable the course; the university is growing fast, and without the college link, pressure on space might have meant more lectures running into the evenings. He also believes that the franchise makes the university more visible in the community.
Two years of detailed planning paid dividends: 'If you are going to offer a quality education, you must make sure everything is in place. We didn't want these students to be guinea-pigs.
'We had no qualms about the quality of the staff at the sixth-form college, and that faith has been fully justified.'
Central Lancashire University is holding a one-day national conference, 'FHE Partnerships and Quality: Towards a National Agenda', on Tuesday 1 March; details from Hilary Strolin, Lanpol Ltd, Freepost, University of Central Lancashire, Preston PR1 2BR (0772 892253).
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