Trotting into the future

Plymouth University is looking to America and cementing its links with colleges. Lucy Hodges asks: will this new scheme bring in more students?
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The Independent Online

The south-west corner of England is known for cream teas and surf rather than educational innovation. Cornwall and Somerset don't have universities. In fact, the whole area might be said to emphasise the good life rather than the life of the mind. Now Plymouth University in Devon is changing that. This week it launched a new initiative binding 20 partner further-education colleges into a unique collaborative arrangement.

Based on a model developed in the United States by the University of Wisconsin, the scheme makes the colleges into a faculty of the university, putting them on the same level as the medical school or the arts faculty. That gives college lecturers parity with the university academics and puts in place an effective mechanism for ensuring high standards. It also gives college students the right to the same resources and facilities as anyone studying on the main university campus.

"We're seeking to make our partner colleges part of the university," says Professor Roland Levinsky, Plymouth's vice chancellor. "The colleges are becoming a faculty of the university. This is an ideal way of providing high-quality higher education to a dispersed rural population."

The idea is the brainchild of Ian Tunbridge, dean of the new University of Plymouth Colleges faculty, who visited Wisconsin last year and was impressed by what he found. "I was very struck by what I thought was a well structured and organised system," he says. "All their colleges [30 in total] come under the University of Wisconsin brand but they also have a local profile." The Wisconsin system enables students to progress easily from the colleges, which offer two-year degrees, to the universities, which top that up to four years. Staff are well trained and their training is updated, and there is a strong sense that it's important to have a dispersed academic community. "This really excited me," says Tunbridge.

"An academic in one college could keep in touch with an academic in the same subject in another college, and with others in the university campuses."

So he set to work to build the same kind of structure. Plymouth decided there needed to be a formal academic arrangement because that would create a sense of belonging. Thus, every college has someone on the UPC faculty board where they play their part in planning and strategy.

At the same time the quality assurance mechanisms have been strengthened. A joint board of studies has been set up between the university and each college whereby the health of higher education programmes in the college is reviewed. This enables any problems to be sorted out quickly, according to Tunbridge. Under the old system, complaints about higher education courses in the colleges would come into the university hierarchy and be pushed from pillar to post. Now a group of people has been set up to deal with these.

In addition, subject forums have been established - clusters of academics from the same subject area who come together for conferences, to look at curriculum development, share resources or to act as critical friends to one another. "I think we have taken a quantum leap," Tunbridge says. "We have been through an era which was about quality policing. We are now moving into an era of quality enhancement and collegiality."

Seeing that the future lay with the new foundation degrees rather than the old Higher National Certificates and Diplomas (HNCs and HNDs), the Plymouth reformers are concentrating their energies on offering the new two-year foundation courses. In fact, they have a staggering 112 foundation degrees on the menu from equine sports performance and surf science at Duchy College in Stoke Climsland, Cornwall, to product design at Somerset College of Arts and Technology to sports coaching and therapy at Truro College in Devon.

Fifteen years ago the university had 450 students taking a mixture of HNDs, HNCs and one-year access courses across four further education colleges in the South West peninsula. Now there are 5,000 people taking these courses plus the new foundation degrees. The new structure cementing the relationship between the colleges and the university could well boost numbers further and should be music to the ears of a government which is trying to push higher education involvement to 50 per cent. And it should help to fuel the regional economy.

This week's ceremony to launch the formal partnership was attended by Bill Mesner, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin colleges who flew over with the express purpose of attending. He has agreed an exchange programme with Plymouth involving both academics and students. And this week, in addition to speaking at the launch, he was giving workshops both on marketing this structure and on how academics from disparate institutions can work together.

Mesner is convinced that cementing ties between colleges and universities produces a better education system. "In America to be part of the University of Wisconsin resonates well," he says. "It helps us enormously. It improves standards and has meant that there are no unnecessary barriers between the colleges and the university. We have a seamless web which allows for a free flow of students from the two-year to the four-year level."

Other universities will be watching what happens in the South West with interest. Cynics will see this as a way of securing future university students; others will see it is a sensible way of organising things.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is looking on with interest. "We welcome these far-sighted developments for the university and its partner colleges," Sir Howard Newby, the chief executive of Hefce, says. "This is an exciting model of collaboration which will have a positive effect on all the institutions involved and above all, will offer both locally and regionally greater choice and a more clearly defined progression path to students.


Naomi Binns, 21, is taking a foundation degree in equine sports performance at Duchy College in Stoke Climsland, Cornwall, and has her own horse on livery at the college. She is exactly the sort of student who may have been lost to the system before the new foundation degrees came along.

"I had always wanted to do a degree," she says. "Being able to take this course in equine sports is just perfect. After four A-levels in biology, chemistry, geography and general studies, I went to Duchy College to do a national certificate in the management of horses. Then I did an advanced national certificate. After that I took a year out to work in a dressage yard in Germany. The degree will give me the practical skills I need; the riding and stable management skills, as well as the academic back-up. It's really good so far. We've started on equine science and on the welfare of horses. When I have finished this degree in two years' time I want to go on and get a full bachelor's degree. The course has been brilliant; just what I was looking for."