Networks lead to higher road

Tony Tysome and Harriet Swain go in search of the Midlands, a region that is busy bridging an east-west divide, increasing participation rates and developing links

Universities in the Midlands are forging strong and exclusive links with further education colleges to try to lift higher education participation rates in the region, writes Tony Tysome.

Technology is helping them connect with colleges and create networks that support lifelong learning. In some cases, they offer further education students virtual access to university facilities.

Derby University believes it is leading the way by developing a regional network and credit framework covering institutions in Derbyshire, designed to encourage continuous progression from further to higher education.

Five colleges - including High Peak College in Buxton, which will merge with the university in August - are involved in delivering courses that have been unitised according to a further education-style system of credit accumulation. Roger Waterhouse, Derby's vice-chancellor, says: "From September we will begin to see students moving from college to college and putting modules together to satisfy the entry requirements for higher education. We are designing special tracks or routes for them to follow into the university."

In a joint venture with High Peak College, Derby has set up an Internet and access-to-learning system, with virtual learning centres in Derbyshire towns. The university is also involved in a North East Midlands access partnership that includes Nottingham Trent, Nottingham and Loughborough universities and about 20 further education colleges.

Staffordshire University, too, is using IT learning facilities to achieve its networking ambitions. Five federated further education colleges have exclusive partnership deals with the university, which provide them a link to an IT network giving students virtual access to facilities and courses.

Christine King, Staffordshire's vice-chancellor, says the West Midlands Regional Development Agency must be aware of the importance of such networks to meet the region's training and education needs. "If the aim is to regenerate the West Midlands, that is the only way. The knack is not to turn us into an amorphous further/ higher education blob, but to have available to students what is appropriate for them at various stages in their lives," she says.

Her view is echoed by Michael Harrison, vice-chancellor at Wolverhampton University, which has partnerships with 20 colleges in the Black Country. "One of the overriding problems is low levels of participation in higher education. That will be solved only through alliances with further education. I hope the RDAs will take this as a key issue and play a role in coordinating provision," he says.

Phillip Walking, pro vice-chancellor at the University of Central England in Birmingham, which has links with 14 colleges, warned that partnerships with colleges in Birmingham need careful handling. "Further education has been highly competitive because of the way the city council handed over control of colleges. It has been important for the university to be seen as open and transparent in its dealings with the colleges," he says.

Even universities that recruit mainly students with standard entry qualifications through traditional routes are hooking up with further education. Last year Aston set up a further education links steering committee to develop its activity in this area. According to Aston vice-chancellor Mike Wright: "This is not an exercise in touting for students. It is more to do with developing a regional collaborative network."

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