John Brennan: American community colleges have a great deal for us to admire and emulate

Britain and the United States have long had a close relationship. For years our schools and colleges have built strong links with partner institutions across the pond. And we have much to learn from each other, particularly in further education. I was fortunate enough to attend last week's annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) in Long Beach, California. Most people in the UK will not have heard of the AACC or the college system it represents. Community colleges are the equivalent of our further education colleges and there are many interesting parallels and contrasts between their system and ours.

There are 1,157 community colleges throughout the US, educating 11.6 million students, mostly aged between 19 and 25. The colleges represent the fastest-growing sector of America's higher education system. They train over half of new nurses and nearly 85 per cent of law enforcement officers and fire fighters. They play a vital role in helping improve basic literacy and numeracy. And yet in the United States, community colleges have an image problem similar to our own further education sector - in a media more concerned with schools and universities they hardly get a look-in. They also struggle with many familiar issues, such as the under-representation of ethnic minorities and socially and economically disadvantaged groups. And they have similar financial concerns - many states have been cutting back on their funding support.

Yet American community colleges have a great deal for us to admire and emulate. They have a credit system that gives students the flexibility to drop in and out of learning. Their qualification system is much more unified than ours - they have simple outcomes in terms of associate and bachelor degrees. They don't have our plethora of qualifications.

One of the contrasts between their system and ours is that American colleges are much more heavily reliant on tuition fee income. But there is also a much greater acceptance from employers and individuals that they will pay for tuition. In this country the Government's measures to raise student fee levels face cultural barriers - we don't have that willingness to invest in our own learning, either by employers or individuals. So we have to educate our society to accept a different balance between public and private contribution.

US community colleges provide an example of what could be achieved if we broke through those barriers. But they have had to create mechanisms to help their learners carry through those study programmes, by having more extensive support, more flexible access and a more customised approach to learning than we have.

American community colleges don't get it all right. They don't have our external inspection system or externally accountable mechanisms - and while some of our colleges may look enviously at such a system, it doesn't have the measure of external rigour that ours has. With legislatures demanding ever more information about their performance, community colleges are realising that they need to generate much better data about their performance and outcomes. Another contrast is in the relationship our American counterparts have with business. Community colleges have successful business people queuing up to endorse the community college system. And US businesses are happy to dip their hands in their pockets to invest in community colleges. There it's just old-fashioned philanthropy - putting something back into the system that helped to make you.

The writer is Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges

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