Partnerships between higher and further education : their contribution to government objectives for widening participation in higher education
Widening participation in higher education has been a stated priority of the Government since it came to power in 1997. In its 2001 election manifesto, the Government set a target that, by 2010, 50% of people aged between18-30 will have had the opportunity to experience higher education. The percentage of this age group currently engaged in higher education is calculated at 43%. Government education policy in the last six to seven years has explicitly encouraged collaboration between institutions in the higher and further education sectors as a means of widening participation in higher education. Partnerships are seen as holding the key to delivering the Government's 50% target. This research explored the contribution that such partnerships make to Government objectives for widening participation in higher education. Four case studies of partnership were examined: the Higher Education and Training Partnership, based at Middlesex University; the Staffordshire University Regional Federation, the Anglia Polytechnic University Regional University Partnership and the Bedfordshire Federation for Further and Higher Education, involving the University of Luton. The case studies represented two examples each of the two main models of indirect funding between higher and further education, the funding consortium and the franchise partnership. The case studies were informed by a review of the literature. Quantitative and qualitative evidence was gathered for the case studies through a study of the data and documentation provided by the four case study partnerships and by means of a series of semi-structured interviews with a range of carefully selected respondents. The analysis of the qualitative evidence and the limited quantitative evidence that it was possible to obtain from the case studies generated a set of findings from which conclusions were drawn. The analysis, findings and conclusions represent a valuable contribution to the knowledge about partnerships and their behaviour, a hitherto under researched area. The main conclusion was that it is difficult to assess the contribution of partnerships between higher and further education to Government objectives for widening participation because of the lack of robust, comparable student number data. This conclusion addresses the main research question and is the major outcome of the study. On the basis of the data it was possible to obtain from the four partnerships that constituted the case studies, there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate conclusively the value of partnerships. None of the partnerships measured the extent to which the range of higher education provision delivered by partner colleges had been extended. Case study respondents expressed a strong belief in the value of what they were doing but the benefits had not been translated into performance indicators that were capable of being measured and monitored. Only one of the four partnerships had analysed fully its contribution to widening participation in quantitative terms. Based on the quantitative data it was possible to collect from the case study partnerships, there appeared to be a growth trend in the numbers of higher education students in partner colleges. But it is impossible to identify how much of the growth was as a result of the partnerships and their efforts to widen participation. Partnerships between higher and further education offer a number of actual or potential benefits to their members. The qualitative analysis of the case studies highlighted the respondents' perceptions of the purposes of partnership which were frequently expressed in terms of the benefits of partnership to their respective institutions. The purposes and benefits went beyond what was captured in partnership agreements. Both the funding consortium and the franchise partnership models offer a basis for effective partnership. The funding consortium model may be more difficult to manage than the franchise partnership model because the principle of equality in relation to the arrangements for data collection and quality assurance can create additional operational challenge. However, the research identified that partnerships have to a large extent been allowed by HEFCE to develop in their own way, with an absence of prescriptive frameworks or criteria for success, making it difficult to evaluate their effectiveness. There are a number of themes that may impact on the effectiveness of partnerships. These formed the basis of the thematic framework against which the case studies were analysed. The findings confirmed the validity of the themes. The findings were clustered under two further themes, barriers to effective partnership operation and critical success factors in effective partnerships. There are a number of barriers to effective partnership operation. Seven barriers were identified as a result of the analysis of the case studies. Four of these related to factors outside the partnerships' control, including the different arrangements in the two sectors for data collection, quality assurance, and the terms and conditions of service for academic staff. There appear to be a number of critical success factors in effective partnerships. The analysis revealed six factors that appeared from the research to be critically important to the success of partnerships between higher and further education. Partnerships demonstrate a range of good practice in their strategies to widen participation that could usefully be shared more widely. In the course of the research, eight examples of good practice were identified as potentially having applicability for other partnerships. The conclusions prompted ideas for further research or development in the area of partnerships between higher and further education: • A more sophisticated quantitative analysis, based on more robust and comprehensive data, of the growth delivered by colleges in higher/further education partnerships, including how much of the increase in higher education student numbers can be ascribed to other wider societal factors • Evaluation of the respective benefits and costs to institutions of their involvement in collaborative activities • Development of appropriate performance indicators for partnerships • Evaluation of the barriers that have a real impact on partnerships' ability to achieve their objectives • Evaluation of the critical success factors identified through the research • Evaluation of the selected examples of good practice in strategies to widen participation • Development of mechanisms for sharing good practice.