Course Guidance: A higher route towards prestige: Karen Gold on how to study university degrees while attending college

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QUESTION: How can you get a university degree without going to university? Answer: go to a college of higher education instead.

There are about 130,000 students currently attending the 51 colleges of higher education in England and Wales, studying everything from dance to nautical engineering. Each college recruits and teaches its own students, but its degrees are generally 'validated' (checked for quality) and awarded by the nearest university.

So, for example, students who spend three years at Chester College will graduate with degrees from Liverpool University; those who go to Roehampton Institute can tell employers they have degrees from the University of Surrey. The system has not prevented the colleges sometimes being the last resort of students who fail to get places elsewhere. But it has given those students a guarantee of standards, and prestige.

Now, however, the colleges fear the transformation of the polytechnics into universities will put them at a further disadvantage in the eyes of students and employers. Their solution is to change their name too: to university colleges. So far the Government has been unimpressed with the idea. But, says Miranda Bell, deputy director of Edge Hill College in Lancashire, the name would demonstrate that the colleges were different but equal.

'It is partly true that we are taking other people's rejects; but we pride ourselves on how well they do,' she argues. 'The colleges are generally smaller than the polytechnics and universities, and they have a more supportive ethos. They take more mature students and students from wider backgrounds than the universities, and fewer students drop out.'

While that is true overall, individual colleges vary just as much in size, location, academic profile and atmosphere as do universities. From Charlotte Mason College in Ambleside, with 670 full-time students - almost all doing teacher training - to Nene College, Northampton, with 4,300 full-time students, is a wide gap indeed.

So what can you do at a college? The answer is, pretty much everything you can do at university: high technology; business studies; music; law; nursing; surveying; French; photography; environmental studies; and a lot more, too.

Quite a few colleges were founded by churches, because of their involvement in education. In some of these teacher training does still predominate, but others have expanded their programme while keeping a distinctive ethos. St Martin's, Lancashire, for example, offers a BA in religious studies, another in social ethics, and has a third in Christian ministry planned. Newman and Westhill, combined Catholic and Free church colleges in Birmingham, offer courses in applied theology, counselling, and Islam.

Other colleges have developed strong international links. The colleges of Ripon and York St John in Yorkshire, and St Mark and St John in Devon, both offer exchange programmes with American universities, Winchester School of Art insists that full-time BA students study in Europe and take a European language.

Virtually all of these colleges, unlike most universities, offer diploma courses as well as degrees. Their case for being higher education colleges is that more than 50 per cent of their work is at degree or higher diploma (HND) level. Part of their attraction, they argue, is the potential seamless robe: students can enter with one A level or none at all, and move up through diploma to degree.

But further education colleges, the local 'techs', are these days getting in on the higher education act, too. There are 12 FE colleges in the South-west, for example, now running parts of degree or diploma courses for Plymouth University alongside their college courses for secretaries and motor mechanics.

This is known as franchising. As with fast food outlets, it means allowing someone to use your name, when you have ensured they meet your standards and sell your brand of goods. Many universities are beginning to franchise their courses: De Montfort and Hertfordshire are two others with growing franchise operations in Britain and abroad.

In the case of Plymouth, franchising means that 1,500 students on 40 different full- and part-time courses are Plymouth University students - studying subjects as diverse as textiles and finance, and in locations as distant as Taunton and Barnstaple.

Unlike the higher education colleges, the FE colleges can rarely offer an entire degree course, though several offer higher national diplomas supervised by Plymouth from start to finish. But after one year, students on these courses receive a certificate of higher education and, after two years, a diploma. Some may feel that is enough, says Plymouth's access and franchise manager, Dr Ian Tunbridge. Others will travel to Plymouth to complete their university degree.

'This is the way things will go in the next five years,' he says. 'Students will be able to pick up quite a wide range of university courses in colleges locally, and progress to whatever level is right for them.'