Today is my first as the new chief executive of AoC. Though I have been involved in education and training for many years, latterly as the director of training and education across all three armed forces, I continue to be surprised by the sheer reach of further education.
Around 200,000 people study higher education in a college and more than half of all foundation degree students are taught by a college. By a neat coincidence today is the first day in which colleges can apply to validate their own foundation degrees, independent from universities.
Foundation degree courses usually take two years to complete, although part-time courses take longer. Most students sit the course while employed – the qualifications are designed in partnership with employers and are therefore popular with business. Tesco recently made headlines with the announcement that it will offer its retail managers a foundation degree validated by the University of the Arts, London and Manchester Metropolitan University.
This new power to validate their own degrees, which will only be granted to institutions that pass a rigorous application procedure, will give colleges more flexibility to meet employer needs. Universities sometimes take a long time to validate qualifications and employers often don't want to wait that long. Several colleges already have a strong track-record in this field. Newcastle College, for instance, offers more than 40 foundation degrees in business, health, performing arts and education, working alongside public and private sector employers such as the NHS, Newcastle Council, Thistle Hotel Group and Avecia Biotechnology. Havering College runs a foundation degree with the Ford Motor Company and another for teaching assistants with local primary and secondary schools.
The range of courses is equally impressive and reflects colleges' drive to meet specific industry needs. The more notable include Bridgwater College's course in forensic science and archaeology, Blackpool and The Fylde's coastal conservation qualification, New College Durham's foundation degree in music management, an adventure tourism course provided by Bradford College, Newham College's railway engineering foundation degree and a computer games development qualification run by Runshaw College.
This new power for colleges is an important step towards increasing access for those who would not have traditionally entered higher education. It should also help to increase the number of alternative routes to university – a third of current students progress to higher learning, the vast majority on an honours degree.
In addition, this fresh opportunity reflects a general drive towards greater independence and self-regulation in the sector. That doesn't mean colleges want to emulate or take on the role of universities. Instead they will be looking to build on what is best about further education – flexibility, responsiveness, and accessibility.