Challenges to FE/HE collaboration in implementing a widening participation strategy
This is one of a set of papers and work in progress written by research postgraduates (MPhil and PhD) at Lancaster University's Department of Educational Research. The papers are primarily offered as examples of work that others at similar stages of their research careers can refer to and engage with.
The purpose of this paper is investigate organizational and cultural challenges to universities and Further Education institutions in working through partnerships to deliver effective widening participation policy implementation strategies. A case study will be used to consider policy issues and priorities, strategic approaches adopted, how policy formulation and implementation has been framed at a local level, and an analysis of how organizational and cultural issues have influenced policy development and implementation at the partnership interface.
The case study focuses on a single urban university in Greater Manchester with strategic links with nine 'associate' colleges, and a less formal partnership arrangement with twenty five other further education colleges (FEC's) across the North West (its 'FE/HE Consortium'). The original motivation for the links between the institutions was to widen access, and arrangements between the University and its associate colleges have matured to incorporate memoranda of co-operation and specific policy formulation on progression protocols, quality issues, curriculum alignment and student guidance as priorities in a developing strategy.
This study focuses on the first year of collaboration (1999/2000), in an attempt to highlight issues that may be relevant to other HE/FE partnerships, particularly those recently involved in Widening Participation policy implementation supported by funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (1998-2000), through both formula and special funding, to a cost of £150 million (HEFCE, 1999a).
Following an outline of the research design the paper contextualises the partnership being investigated within the broad Widening Participation policy framework, and considers how such factors as market pressures and funding methodologies are impacting on intra- and inter-educational sector collaboration. Information on the case study partners is then provided, followed by the data and its analysis. Huxham's (1993) concepts of 'collaborative capability', 'collaborative advantage' and 'meta-strategy' will be used in the analysis of the partnership.
Investigating collaborative processes for widening participation
The research involved participation over an academic year with a university in Greater Manchester and its nine associate colleges. This represents the first year of the formal associate college relationship, and the process is planned to represent the early stages of a move to a more strategic regional policy by the University. Sixty percent of the University's annual intake is from within a fifty mile radius, and forty percent from the colleges in its FE/HE Consortium.
This consortium was established in 1993 with the aim of enhancing progression opportunities to HE for 'non-traditional' students, largely through Access to Higher Education courses delivered by the FE partners, and the development and embedding of procedures for the accreditation of prior learning. In academic year 1999/2000 over 30% of the University's annual intake was from socio-economic groups (SEG) III/IV/V (20% from IV/V), compared to an average for all Manchester universities of 24% ( HEFCE, 2000a). The University's strategy was therefore well established before the recent (1998/2000) HEFCE (1998a) funded policy drive to widen participation. The strategy emphasis with the associate colleges is to widen participation for all students, including 16-19 year olds following traditional routes to matriculation.
Three of the nine colleges have been selected for investigation. The rationale for this is that they broadly represent college 'type'. College A is a large mixed-economy college with approximately 10% of its work classed as HE. College B is a traditional medium size FE college with a broad spectrum of academic and vocational courses. College C is a small sixth form college, with a strong academic tradition, and its focus largely on 16-19 year old students. Each college has its own Steering Group with the University, to formulate and oversee the implementation of strategy, and the Steering Groups met twice over the year (each semester). The researcher attended these meetings. The research design is modeled in Fig. 1
The University has four faculties, and Curriculum Groups have been set up for each college with each faculty. These each met three times over the academic year, and for the purposes of this research two of the four faculties have been selected. These are Health and Arts, Media and Social Science (AMSS). The rationale for this selection is that the former represents courses of a highly professional and vocational nature, while the latter's courses are traditionally academic. The researcher participated as an observer in all Curriculum Group meetings between these two faculties and the three colleges.
The Curriculum Groups were identified by the University as the interface between the two sectors in policy development and implementation. In particular the Curriculum Groups, composed of lecturers from similar subject backgrounds across the two sectors, were briefed to map and align curriculum for widening progression, and identify potential for the enrichment of student learning. The research design, therefore, has focused on this structure of policy formulation at strategic levels across the two sectors, and interpretation, development and implementation of policy through the Curriculum Groups.
As well as observation at strategic and developmental levels, the research involved semi-structured interviews with staff responsible for strategy within each of the partners (the PVC for Teaching and Learning at the University, and Vice Principals at each of the three colleges). Semi-structured interviews were also used with the chairs of the Curriculum Groups. (The same individuals in each faculty chaired Curriculum Group meetings with all colleges). Finally, the researcher conducted focus groups with Curriculum Group members of each of the three colleges. These were conducted within the colleges and combined members from both Curriculum Groups (Health and AMSS).
Both interviews and focus groups with the colleges involved a degree of 'funneling' (Morgan, 1997) prior to detailed questions on the Curriculum Groups, facilitating data collection on organizational and cultural issues relating to policy implementation in the FE sector, particularly since incorporation in 1993. This was felt necessary in any attempt to understand conceptual, cultural and organizational similarities and differences at the sector interface. A similar approach was used in the interviews with the University staff.
Data selected for analysis for this paper relates to the expectations of the Curriculum Groups and subsequent perceptions of their effectiveness, from both strategic and developmental perspectives across both sectors. The analysis will draw on theory from both organizational and cultural perspectives in an attempt to highlight issues of significance to inter-sector partnerships in implementing Widening Participation policy.
The researcher's role in contributing to the development and implementation of policy has to be taken into account in interpreting the data. Development and research roles have been made explicit from the start of the project, to all parties at all levels. It is acknowledged that in this case the fact that the researcher was known, to a varying extent, by all of the respondents appears an advantage in the sense that familiarity with the context and the issues facilitated a more detailed and open response. However, it also has to be acknowledged that these advantages have to be set against college staff perceptions, in particular, of the role of the individual and their experience of him as 'developer', as opposed to 'researcher'.
The focus groups had the advantage of college staff being able to reflect on expectations and experience within their own environment. Rarely was there disagreement within the groups, and none of the groups were dominated by particular individuals. This could be interpreted as displays of 'public discourse' (Kitzinger, 1994), as opposed to 'private views' expressed in individual interviews (Temple, 1998). Although the researcher role was stressed in these sessions, and seemingly accepted, the degree of apparent consensus might be interpreted as deference to a developer from a more powerful institution in the partnership. This is to be offset, however, by the degree of frankness and criticism within the consensus across the focus groups. Indeed Smithson (2000) argues focus groups should be seen as discourses that emerge, 'constructed in social situations', rather than group opinion or the opinions of individuals within groups.
Further contextual information about the participating institutions is provided following an evaluation of the policy context. This has the following structure: an evaluation of the primacy of partnership in the delivery of policy is subsequently considered in a context of new public sector management practice and funding strategy. A brief review of the literature on FE/HE partnerships is also provided, and Huxham's concept of 'collaborative capability 'is then introduced and subsequently used in the analysis of the case study.
Widening participation and regional collaboration through partnership
Coles and Smith (1999, 2) proclaim that:
partnership has become a leitmotiv of higher education,
but that there is no single definition:
...'partnership', 'alliances', 'networks' and 'collaboration' are often used to describe broadly similar processes in various contexts
Throughout this paper 'partnerships' refers to collaborative arrangements, local and regional in conception and delivery, between Further and Higher Education, designed to formalize and simplify regional progression arrangements, largely to the benefit of those traditionally under-represented in HE. It is recognized that other agencies, such as Local Authorities, Regional Development Agencies and Learning and Skills Councils will play a significant but more marginal and instrumental role in these partnerships.
The move to increase participation rates in higher education, following publication of the Government's 1991 White Paper Higher Education: A New Framework, resulted in increased links between Higher and Further Education institutions. The current policy mantra in the UK of widening participation is driven by a combination of utilitarian and progressive perspectives: a push to accelerate the move into a truly mass system of higher education, whilst attempting to diversify the social mix of its beneficiaries. The formulation and approaches to the delivery of this policy have stressed the significance of regional collaboration between Further and Higher Education.
Policy and funding initiatives have increased pressure and incentives to collaborate. Agendas of lifelong learning, social inclusion, the skills deficit and the flexibility of labour markets have reinforced the drive to local and regional collaboration (NCIHE (1997), Fryer (1997), Kennedy (1997), Woodrow (1998), HEFCE (1998b)). The establishment of Education Action Zones, Learning and Skills Councils, the powers invested in the Regional Development Agencies, and policies such as Excellence in Cities (DfEE, 2000), alongside structural issues such as changes in student funding, have reinforced the necessity for universities to collaborate locally and regionally with potential providers of students. The funding of places on sub-degree courses in the FE sector, validated by HE, such as the new Foundation Degrees have also reinforced this trend.
The policy discourse is translated into priorities identified by funding agencies and the consequent policies of FE and HE institutions, as well as other regional agencies. HEFCE, for example, outlined a broad funding strategy for widening participation in HEI's. Amongst key principles envisaged was the need to:
increase collaboration between HEI's and partners from other education sectors to improve progression routes to HE from underrepresented groups (HEFCE 1998a, 14.b)
and a key funding objective linked to this was to:
build partnerships between HEI's, schools and especially the FE sector to improve progression rates to HE of previously disadvantaged students (HEFCE, 1999a, funding objective 2d).
However, HEFCE policy is based on the recognition of the need for partnerships to address the widening participation agenda. The transition from an elite to a mass system of higher education is now complete (Scott, 1995). Evidence of this is provided by the Age Participation Index (the percentage of 18 year-olds participating in HE), which between 1988 and 1994 moved from 17 to 31 percent (Robertson and Hillman, 1997).
However, the expansion has largely benefited the middle classes. Fryer, for example, citing DfEE data on 'the highest qualifications of adults' (1998) at the Association of University Administrators' Conference in 1998 demonstrated that while the percentage of SEG I/II with degrees rose from 32% in 1990 to 60% in 1998, during the same period the percentage of SEG IV/V equally qualified fell from 3 % to 1%. Metcalfe (1997), used the DfEE Qualified Participation and Qualified Leaver Indices (QPI/QLI) to show that only 16% of SEG IV/V reached the QLI (qualified to progress to HE) compared to 50% of SEG I/II, but more significantly, of those qualified, 47% of SEG IV/V progressed to HE compared to 77% from SEG I/II.
HEFCE's priority in funding its widening participation strategy is to increase recruitment and retention of students from underrepresented groups by targeting two main groups: disabled students and those from 'disadvantaged backgrounds'. The consultative paper on widening participation circulated by HEFCE (1998a) was addressed specifically to managers, defined as those interested in planning, finance, recruitment, equal opportunities and access. It proposed a combination of funding approaches to encourage institutions to develop strategic approaches (Hoy, Kumrai and Webb, 2000), and invitations to bid for special funds were circulated (HEFCE, 1999a).
Recruitment (defined as increased participation by under-represented groups) and retention (help for students from under-represented groups) were prioritized. The most recent HEFCE proposals (2000-01 to 2003-04) place most stress on recruitment and 'raising the aspirations of all', linking this strongly to Excellence in Cities partnerships and the provision of extra support for students under 21 in the form of 'Opportunity Bursaries' (HEFCE, 2000b).
Hoy, Kumrai and Webb (op.cit) have identified a number of common themes in the bids funded by HEFCE, the most prevalent being the reference to partnerships. They comment that
What is interesting is what the organisations'statements, as summarized by HEFCE, suggest will be the role of partnerships in widening participation. On this the summaries are relatively silent.
They state that where partnership is mentioned there is an implicitness that the activity itself fosters widening participation:
In other words developing the partnership seems to be the strategy by which institutions can 'maximise synergy' (UNL et. al.), 'exchange good practice' (Kingston et. al.), or address 'understanding of the two cultures' (Woolwich et. al.). Similarly, for institutions where such links have not formally developed, the focus is on building a 'set of core partners among the FE colleges' (Imperial College)...
Sectoral and inter-sectoral partnerships, seen as key units in policy delivery, are expected to and assumed to be able to operate effectively on a regional basis.
HEFCE makes little allowance for local tensions, potential conflict and market pressures, in particular between FE colleges (competing corporations since 1993), in collaborating with a local HEI (and indeed market conflict between HEI's and potential FE partners where competition exists; for example where sub-degree qualifications are on offer, such as HND's). The Widening Participation policy strategy seems essentially functionalist and based on an approach characterized by instrumental rationality (Sanderson, 1999), premised on an assumption that partnerships between HEI's and FEI's can and will develop and deliver policy.
Collaboration and Competition?
Collaboration is being driven as the process of policy delivery in an environment characterized by competition and market values, which has dominated new public management practice and discourse. Whether these practices are competing or transitional is not clear. However, public sector drives towards competitiveness and sustainability are equated with efficiency, effectiveness and general 'performativity' (Lyotard, 1984). This involves the definition of 'core activity', maximizing the return on the 'unit of resource', and minimizing risk. A consequence for both FE and HE sectors for example is the need to maximize recruitment: funding units for the FE sector depend on recruiting students in a limited geographical area. Competition has been and is intense, and colleges have been driven by new public management practice in an attempt to maximize efficiency. The tension and difficulty this causes in attempting to formulate working partnerships within a region are illustrated by the Vice Principal of College A:
...if you look at HEFCE it would encourage us to work with regional partners to develop a strategic view to HE. But...one thing incorporation did was encourage competition. You can hardly turn around a decade of competition and say 'well you know we are not competing any more, we are more partners, co-operating', and then still say 'by the way you have got to meet your funding targets'.
Competition, funding restrictions and performativity have inhibited the ability and willingness to 'take risks'. The Vice Principal of College B commented:
I think there is now an unwillingness to take risks and be creative. Anything new, I can think of some programmes...if they had been proposed now they would never have been approved. Anything new that is proposed now has to be seen as being immediately successful and hit the ground running. There's no longer a comfortable trial period. So the risk taking, I would say is almost negligible really.
Clarke and Newman (1997:147) highlight this tension between collaboration and 'performativity':
Issues of strategy and purpose are posed in terms of a narrow sense of core business rather than a wider public purpose. This in turn means that being effective has a narrow definition - it is effectiveness in relation to a narrow set of goals. The focus on corporate culture can produce an 'us against the world' philosophy, which in turn means a lack of capacity to collaborate across boundaries and a number of deficits in terms of partnership working.
They go on to say that:
The focus on core business linked to outputs, and output based funding mean there are a number of 'perverse incentives' which inhibit inter-organisational co-operation
and observe an increasing tendency within the public sector towards 'boundary management' and 'creaming' and 'dumping' strategies in relation to 'good and bad risks'. Inter-sectoral policy collaboration between FE and HE is being promoted by HEFCE in this context.
From a managerial and strategic perspective all three FE colleges involved in this study are characterised by a dwindling unit of resource coinciding with increasing strictures on quality. Economy, efficiency, and target related funding linked to recruitment and retention were highlighted by all three senior managers interviewed.
The 'big bang' approach to management since incorporation in 1993 in FE has been commented on by Kerfoot and Whitehead (1998), Whitehead (1999, 2000), Prichard (1996) and Ainley and Bailey (1997). Whitehead (1999) identifies a shift in culture from benign liberal paternalism to a 'hegemonic masculinity', a concept developed by Carrigan, Connell and Lee (1985), brought about by a drive towards a rational, task oriented, instrumental, combative and competitive paradigm of management in the FE sector. Ainley and Bailey (1997) note the force of the maxim 'the right to manage' across the sector. Aggressive managerialism (Jones, 1995) was legitimised through the dominant discourse which resulted in a 40% growth in the sector between 1993 - 1996 on less funding than in 1992. The discourses of competitiveness and 'performativity' have dominated, and coincided with the implementation of business models across the sector, such as TQM, IIP, BS5750, and Human Resource Management.
Managerialism has been more pronounced in the FE sector, but it is impacting on HE, and Galbriath (1999) in advocating the application of systems thinking to planning processes in HE notes that managerial discourse has increasingly come to include terms that indicate a tension between 'dollarship and scholarship'. Although less intense in the HE sector, Henkel (1997) identifies the challenge this poses to traditional academic values and practices, particularly since 1985, with the increasingly utilitarian policy perspective of universities delivering wider policy agendas, such as 'empoyability' and access.
Clarke and Newman's analysis does illustrate dilemmas facing FE and HE institutions in delivering the HEFCE Widening Participation policy. Collaboration within such a market driven, output rewarded environment has to be seen to have tangible benefits. Public policy, managerial discourse and funding drivers (for example, the 'postcode premium', HEFCE (1998c)), however, have enabled FEI's and HEI's being given opportunities to define an element of core business within policy frameworks, such as widening participation and inclusive learning, which necessitates collaboration to maximize the effectiveness of its delivery. The next section will review evidence of the effectiveness of collaboration between FE and HE.
Processes of FE/HE partnership - organizational and cultural challenges
Griffiths (2000) has noted the difficulties in obtaining data to evaluate how collaboration across the FE/HE sectors is being conducted, and criticises the existing research (for example, Hermann et. al., 1996, Postlethwaite and Haggarty, 1998), for the lack of systematic evidence of the processes of collaboration itself.
Woodrow et. al. (1998) conducted what amounted to an audit on behalf of CVCP to identify 'good practice' in the area of widening participation. Of 58 proposals submitted 14 case studies were selected as 'working examples of effective strategies to widen access'. The report was concerned to identify performance indicators, evidence-based practice, by which HEI's could monitor effectiveness. It also attempted to offer criteria by which effectiveness in partnership might be achieved. These include: minimizing the number of partners, clarity of purpose and benefits, effective resource use, 'shared ownership', and effective, cost-effective structures. Although successful, the case studies featured are small-scale, highly focused, and marginal to mainstream HEI activity.
Finlay et.al. (1997) in an analysis of FE/HE collaboration in Scotland used Hoy and Miskel's (1989) model based on systems theory to evaluate college motivation for collaboration, and identified environmental uncertainty and resource dependency as significant factors. This has been particularly relevant since the incorporation of the FE sector in 1993. Collaboration, which would increase the perceived security of the institution and give it a wider resource base would be likely to appeal to a sector unwilling to take risks.
They also applied Alter and Hage's (1993) theoretical analysis of networks and partnerships based on organisational network theory to their study, and concluded that although FEI's and HEI's are increasingly forming partnerships, the degree of partnership is relatively limited. A feature of the 'symbiotic' partnerships (usually 'limited' rather than 'broad' in Alter and Hage's categorisation) was that the official memoranda setting up the partnerships envisaged much broader co-operation, and therefore achievement, than was actually delivered. Even in the two cases where the partnerships were over twenty years old, only some features of moderate co-operation were in evidence.
HEFCE's research (1998b) focused on processes of sub-contractual partnerships such as franchise arrangements with FEI's delivering part-awards (such as Year 0/1 or the first phase of a '2+2' arrangement), or validation of whole awards delivered in FEI's. In attempting to identify models of sub-contractual partnerships the research found that
the range in the scale and complexity of many schemes, numbers of partners and programmes involved and the existence of often overlapping (sometimes competing) rationales for involvement in partnerships reflect a complex and quite specific history where different or multiple purposes are served at different times. (p48)
This research also concluded that clear strategic planning involving all colleges is a factor in the relative effectiveness of partnerships, but that differences in the relative status of partners can become a source of tension. An interesting finding was that in pre-1992 universities partnerships were usually formed at the subject level rather than institutionally. This issue will be considered in the analysis of this paper's case study, with particular regard to the significance of cultural and organizational issues on inter-organisational and inter-sectoral collaboration.
FE/HE collaboration across Greater Manchester occurs in a variety of ways that can be categorised as 'preferred partner' (for example one college linked to one university), 'selected partners' (one college with a small range of HEI's usually linked into progression possibilities, or an HEI with a cluster of colleges given "associate" status) or 'multiple partners' (usually an opportunistic HEI linked into a wide range of FEI's, but sometimes a large mixed-economy college with diverse HE links).
Size and resource base are possible factors in determining the number and nature of collaborative partnerships. College B's Vice Principal, for example, commented:
...four or so years ago there was a series of fragmented links with about five other institutions. Reading the literature at the time, things like the Dearing report, it was certainly clear to me that one long-term all encompassing strategic partnership was better than a series of loose links.
College C's Vice Principal also stressed the issue of staff time and other resources as being the factor in focusing links with a specific HEI.
However, even where an FEI has the inclination towards multi-partner links, the external funding and quality audit processes appear to be acting to minimise the number of HE partners for large FEI's. Other policies, such as Foundation Degrees being awarded by the HE sector, are reinforcing this trend. The Vice Principal of College A appeared reluctantly resigned to this outcome:
I think we are sitting on the cusp of the demise of the HND with the Foundation Degree...what the Foundation Degree does is force you to link with an HE institution.
Clearly partnership development across the two sectors is happening, and policy and funding is likely to reinforce this trend. Evidence of its effectiveness, however, is limited, and the impetus provided by the incentive of pump-prime funding is not necessarily sustainable.
The rest of this paper attempts to explore how a relatively mature FE/HE partnership is attempting to collaborate to move widening participation from a marginal to an increasingly core activity (particularly for the HEI). This will involve an analysis of organizational and cultural issues at the partnership interface, and the impact they have on policy interpretation and implementation. In the light of the HEFCE research (1998b), which identified effective partnerships in pre-1992 universities being focused at subject level, Huxham's (1993) concept of 'collaborative capability' will be used to analyse the processes of inter-sectoral collaboration being attempted in the development of the partnership.
Huxham and Vangen (1996) elicited evidence of the costs of partnerships working and their limited effectiveness in developing co-ordinated strategies. This raises an issue of assumptions about partnership which underlie the Widening Participation policy strategy. Huxham (1993) also developed a systems model for collaboration based on concepts of 'collaborative advantage', 'meta-strategy' and 'collaborative capability'.
Collaborative advantage is where an organisation through collaboration is able to achieve its own objectives better than it could acting alone. This is applicable for example to FEI's wanting to formalize progression arrangements or deliver sub-degree level teaching. In the case of an HEI access to local communities is achievable through FE partnerships. The incentives and benefits are clear, and given FE's current aversion to risk, this is likely to be an important issue in partnership development.
Meta-strategy is a joint strategy which is "super-ordinate to the strategies of the collaborating organisations", and is conceptually coherent with HEFCE's functionalist approach to policy.
Huxham defines 'collaborative capability' as "the capacity and readiness of an organisation to collaborate", and concludes that if organisations with a relatively low degree of collaborative capability are deemed
to be central stakeholders in any implementable meta-strategy... it seems important to find ways to move the collaboration forward which takes account of the collaborative capability differences (p.25)
Although this concept, as used by Huxham, assumes the whole organization as the unit of engagement in the process of collaboration, it nevertheless is a useful conceptual tool in attempting to identify and evaluate the effectiveness of units or levels of engagement in inter-sectoral partnership, and it will be used to do this in this paper. The concept of collaborative capability will therefore be adapted in evaluating FE/HE collaboration at whole organization and sub-organisational levels in the interests of widening participation policy implementation.
Further contextual information about the partners is provided in this section around themes of environment and organisational structure, management and organisational culture.
The University underwent a merger with a local College of Technology (COT) in 1998. Before this the two institutions had had strong links, with the COT being the only Associate College of the University at that time. The COT had adopted the title 'University College' several years prior to merger, and delivered degrees awarded by the University. A 'bridging' unit had been established between the two institutions in 1993 to develop collaborative links with the FE sector, with the purpose of widening access to HE. Merger involved the absorption of the COT into a new institution, which retained the distinct and strong collegiality of the University. Since the merger the University has been re-organised from eight to four faculties, and thirty eight departments have been restructured into seventeen schools.
Since incorporation in 1993 the three colleges have experienced a varying degree of rationalisation of staffing and structures aimed to maximise effectiveness (defined by a range of indicators including cost, performance and retention), and responsiveness to local markets and communities, which have had a marked effect on management style and culture. For example, two years after incorporation College B saw a major re-organisation. The staffing at the college was reduced from 150 to 110 full time equivalents. Senior staff were required to re-apply for their jobs. Middle managers were required to take on more responsibility, and the perception of senior managers was that they were responsible for managerial and resource issues, and had little time for curriculum matters.
Rationalisation, however, was more complicated for College A owing to its dispersed geographical nature. It still had the same structure and units built around curriculum areas that existed pre-1993. The Vice Principal referred to the 'sixth form college' throughout the interview, a sub-unit of the college on a separate site responsible for 'A' level teaching.
College C has no natural 'feed', the local schools retaining sixth forms. It also has to compete with two Catholic sixth form colleges of high reputation. These factors have heightened its awareness of a need to be 'responsive'. Its core activity is targeted at the traditional 16-19 curriculum (85-90%), with the remainder divided between 'community college' evening work, and commercial work geared to employer training.
The University is characterised by a highly dispersed 'loosely coupled' (Weick, 1976) managerial framework in keeping with the collegiality characteristic of pre-1992 universities. The PVC, when interviewed, identified the devolution of policy ownership into the newly established faculties and schools as the biggest challenge to management in such an organisation. This challenge is reflected in his wry comment about faculty staff:
"There's only one day in the month when they perceive themselves as part of the university, and that's when their pay slip arrives"
Nevertheless the University is respectful of its collegiality, adopting what Trow (1994) classifies as a 'soft managerialism' approach to developments, involving an incremental, devolved approach to change.
In contrast all three colleges, from a managerial and strategic perspective, are more explicitly characterised by a dwindling unit of resource coinciding with increasing strictures on quality. Economy, efficiency, and target related funding linked to recruitment and retention were highlighted by all three senior managers interviewed as defining the priorities of their management.
"I think in curriculum terms the challenge has been the convergence issue of seeking to hit lower and lower average levels of funding on the one hand while at the same time having to be far more explicit about target related recruitment, retention and achievement"
(Vice- Principal, College A)
"We occupy that peculiar limbo of being a business that's not really a business, but still judged by educational quality criteria...Our financial viability is very small. I mean our margin for error is very small, and we can't afford to do something which is going to lose us hundreds of thousands of pounds."
(Vice Principal, College B)
The Vice-Principal at College C reflected the realities within which FE is operating:
"All the time in the back of your mind is that if we don't get that extra growth things are going to suffer...those extra growth units if you like have only enabled us to maintain our income. Without those we would have had to lose staffing somewhere."
The Vice Principal of College B, however, felt that their re-organisation had had positive outcomes: middle managers from different curriculum areas meet regularly and have developed an ownership of a college rather than a subject area perspective on a range of strategic issues. Staff in the focus group identified a degree of negative feeling throughout the institution as a result of the process, but acknowledged its effectiveness as an outcome, and its commitment to providing a comprehensive and responsive service for the community.
Re-organisation at the University has been seen by some staff as an attempt to respond to funding and quality pressures and make it more manageable. The Curriculum Group (CG) Chair (AMSS Faculty, and an Associate Head of School within the faculty), explained the problems he was faced with in attempting to 'schoolify' (his phrase) themes around processes such as admissions when the 'academic tribes' (Becher, 1989) were focused and grouped around the subject areas previously called departments. In his case the 'school' was an attempt to group the former departments of English, Politics and Contemporary History, and Sociology. He felt the most optimistic scenario is that academics would be limited to a school perspective on policy issues - faculties were perceived as bureaucratic and constraining. He claimed that the reality in most cases is that the academic staff across the faculty, and certainly in his school had at best a subject group perspective and identity, akin to Alvesson's (1994) use of Bourdieu's (1979) concept of 'social field'.
"I think there is a real problem in staff being asked to try to work at a strategic level for an organisation as big as the University...I don't think you can relate much to the University as a concept. Your department is a primary focus of your loyalty, especially if it is a single discipline department"
Clearly, although carrying 'strategic' and 'managerial' responsibilities for the transition, he still used the concept of department as the 'base unit' (Becher and Kogan, 1992) even though they no longer exist.
The 'social field' conception of sub-cultural 'being' is transferable to the Health faculty also, with professional group (such as Physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy and Radiography) being a significant issue in framing allegiances, identities and codes. An example of this is the long standing attempt to introduce multi-professional approaches to learning and teaching within the faculty. The individuals championing these initiatives within the faculty consistently cite professional identities as the hurdle.
Managerialism evident within the FE partners has appeared to have a significant impact on organizational cultures. However, this has to be seen within a staff identity of professionalism which rationalizes 'effectiveness' and 'responsiveness', and other examples of the dominant managerial discourse of the new public sector. In the focus group conducted with staff in College A they proudly identified their professionalism as teachers as the factor that enabled them to adapt to the new output driven agenda, which had caused their professional lives to be extremely stressful. Incorporation, competition, and funding practices have provided conditions which have helped to facilitate the hegemony of managerialism in FE (Whitehead, 1999, 2000). Its effects are to be observed in the comments of a Curriculum Group member from College B:
"Perhaps one thing that's good about our ethos and culture is we do put products in quickly - to survive."
College C has a strong and cohesive ethos and mirrors many of the characteristics of the 'sixth form college' evaluated by Robinson and Burke (1996), and Hodkinson and Bloomer (2000). Staff are aware of the status of teaching in such an institution, and increased workloads are noticed but accepted as part of the role. The small size of the college reinforces the cohesive culture, the focus on the target of individual student achievement, and the community nature of the professional experience.
It would appear that management in the sense of control is a more straightforward issue in the FE sector than in HE. Issues of size, organization and culture pose challenges for inter-sectoral partnership for the implementation of policy. The University's 'multiple cultural configurations' (Alvesson, 1994) in particular raise questions about its ability to respond strategically as a single member of a partnership attempting to interpret and then deliver Widening Participation. Its 'collaborative capability' (Huxham, 1993) as an organization would appear to be limited. This issue will be explored in analyzing the data which follows.
The Curriculum Groups
The research covered a wide range of issues connected to the operation of the groups, but for the purposes of this paper two have been selected: expectations of the Curriculum Groups, and perceptions of collaboration through the groups after the first year. These issues were explored at both strategic and developmental levels.
The purpose of the Curriculum Group meetings has been to bring subject specialists from the two sectors together to form a working relationship. Broad objectives linked to curriculum mapping, progression arrangements, curriculum enrichment and student guidance have been agreed to frame discussions.
All meetings were held at the University in prestigious accommodation, and were formally conducted and minuted. College representatives usually involved the individual responsible for the curriculum area plus teaching colleagues. University staff included the appropriate Associate Dean (who chaired the group) and members of lecturing staff.
Expectations of Curriculum Groups
Respondents were asked to recall their expectations of the Curriculum Groups when they were established.
At a strategic level the colleges viewed the Curriculum Groups as the fora for the delivery of a 'meta-strategy' (Huxham, 1993), which would offer the 'collaborative advantages' of significantly enhancing the reputation of their individual institutions, as well as the range of opportunities they could provide both to existing students, and those targeted as the beneficiaries of widening participation policy.
"...we would like to be a very focused provider of HE and obviously we went into this ...to provide HE within the area...some of which may be top up or a full degree. It's the idea of HE not being delivered just regionally, but locally as well, and students staying at home."
(Vice Principal, College B)
This was reinforced by the priorities identified by the Vice Principal of College A:
"It is actually to develop HE programmes, whether they are (the University's) own HND's or whether they are more clearly defined progression opportunities for HND; you know the 2 + 2."
The primary driver for this is the college's policy and commitment to 'inclusivity'. Partnership (from a meta-strategic perspective) will enable the University
"...to say 'well look, there are thousands of people in (community A) who for reasons of travel, time, funds, access will never go to the University, but they will go to the college, whether evening classes, Saturdays, they will do something...Let's be imaginative, offer (College A) the opportunity to run the degree in 'under-water netting' which isn't run at the University'."
(Vice Principal, College A)
It is not just about HE delivery for College A, however. It is seen as an opportunity to influence policy on appropriate assessment strategies for students who are categorized as 'non-traditional'. This need is based on previous experience of running a '2 + 2' programme with the University when the majority of students who progressed achieved only third class honours. The Vice Principal attributed this to the traditional assessment methods used on the particular 'top up' route at the University, and compared arrangements with another university which offered students of similar ability more assessment of course work, resulting in the achievement of higher average degree classification.
At the developmental level of the Curriculum Group the FE staff were also keen to embrace widening participation policy:
"There are people who won't travel to institutions, who are probably on the doorstep. We do have a very static staff, let alone students, and there are a lot of people who would not go down the traditional HE route and be prepared to travel"
(College B, CG member 2)
The FE staff also saw the sharing of staff expertise and the development of higher level teaching experience as priorities:
"The students that you get in higher education are the most stimulating..."
(College A, CG member 1)
"I've got some great staff, all of which (sic) are qualified up to the bloody eyeballs...the expectation of all the team is that they're going to get some higher level work, and they're sort of champing at the bit".
(College B CG member 1)
Expectations of College C's staff were more limited, and focused on progression for students, access to facilities and curriculum enrichment. They saw the process as an opportunity to "challenge the gatekeepers" and negotiate preferred progression criteria, although one member strongly opposed this on grounds of quality and equity, and raised the issue of a potential undermining of 'standards'.
Across the three colleges opportunities for staff exchanges and other forms of professional development, as well as tracking student performance were also identified as expectations.
From the University's strategic perspective the Curriculum Groups, according to the Pro Vice Chancellor, were the interface between the two sectors in the strategy. He saw widening participation and retention as inseparable issues, and therefore the "process of transition" from FE to HE for the individual 'non-traditional' student as crucial, and potentially traumatic. The Curriculum Groups, therefore, for him provide the fora to address issues of curriculum, guidance and cultural capital in the interests of 'non-traditional students'. This categorization is to be interpreted broadly, to include widening participation target students on traditional routes.
The Chair of the CG Health saw potential for:
"...a focus for a whole variety of changes to the way in which we deliver our programmes, think about new programmes, think about new methods of teaching...and how we work with not only FE, but with employers, to take forward this whole agenda. It is one that is not going to go away."
His commitment, however, was tempered with caution:
"..the policy... is looking for a relationship between further and higher education. And relationships take time, and they take effort. And I'm not sure that we, as an institution, and the structure of that institution, have really taken on board the commitment involved with any partnership with further education...We've got to be careful that we don't build up an expectation in the eyes of further education, and in the eyes of students. So if we are going out to champion widening participation, then we have to ensure that back at the base the staff have taken on board that commitment...I feel that...our commitment to what we think we can do is in advance of what we are actually able to deliver."
The fact that his faculty consists of one school that 'recruits' and another that 'selects' offers an possible insight into this caution, and illustrates the challenge referred to by the Pro Vice Chancellor in establishing the ownership of policy at the level most significant in its implementation.
In contrast to this cautious idealism the Chair of the CG AMSS saw recruitment as a significant expectation. However he expressed a number of concerns including what he termed the "hand me downism" of University strategy on this policy, raising questions about the choice of particular colleges. He also stressed the ambivalence he and his colleagues felt about the priority being given to local and regional contacts when their research standing demanded that their focus be global:
"The tension is ...that we would not feel comfortable being in a university that embraced admissions being solely a local, American style approach. That would really break us in terms of our morale."
Embracing the policy to some degree, however, has become a necessity, because regardless of starred ratings in the Research Assessment Exercise, changes in student funding and unclear employment prospects have significantly eroded recruitment to their purely academic courses.
The challenge to the implementation of policy can be seen in the relative clarity and consensus in the expectations of the colleges compared to the range of interests and priorities in the University.
Experience and Perceptions of the Curriculum Groups
All parties acknowledged the benefits of the exercise in terms of sharing information and curriculum mapping, but the overwhelming perception, even from the Pro-Vice Chancellor, was that progress had been slow. He attributed this to the scale of the task (linking with 9 colleges), the aftermath at the University of re-organisation, and the challenge of creating a critical mass of opinion in the University which accepted the principle on which the policy is based. This last point illustrates the organizational and cultural challenge, and he contrasted the power of senior management teams in the colleges with the need to manage by consent in the University, illustrating the point by referring to the Senate's recent rejection of the Vice Chancellor's selection of deans to the new faculties.
He also felt that because of the scale of the task mechanisms and appropriate collaborative structures to support the Curriculum Groups have not yet been fully established. He was keen to stress that systems had to be academically led, and that the network will be organic, and therefore evolutionary. This reflects the consensual, collegial culture of the University.
Frustration with the pace of development was particularly felt by the FE staff. College A's staff were very positive about the outcomes of their experiences with their University equivalents in the Curriculum Groups, but felt that the problem was higher up the management hierarchy in both institutions:
"We tend to pass it on to them (college management) and the University staff pass it on to their senior management. We never come together as a group. It gets passed on through the Curriculum Groups, and then it seems to disappear...My perception is that we have got quite far with the discussions now, I would say as far as we can go..." (College A, CG member 1)
This summarised a frustration which illuminates issues of policy implementation, and 'top-down/bottom-up strategies' which will be developed later. As agents of development there was a limit to what could be achieved, and this was reinforced by College A's Vice Principal:
"When that (Steering) group breaks up and you get down to the curriculum sub-groups...both at the college and at the University we have not conveyed to the curriculum groups what it is we expect from them...I think the issue there is who on those sub-groups (Curriculum Groups) feels that they have the authority to take things further?"
In contrast to the Pro-Vice Chancellor's commitment to an organic strategy, the perception of the college staff in particular was that there was a need for a more strategic and managerial approach. Indeed the previous quote which refers to 'sub-groups' and 'what it is we expect from them' reveals the instinctive managerialism in the FE.
Vice Principal College B compared this experience with a previous venture with a post 1992 university:
"...having done a bit of work with (post 1992 university)... is that things will only improve and move more quickly if there is a forum which can speak for the University with authority, and say 'this university's policy is to engage in collaborative arrangements with FE colleges to develop widening participation...but there is too much discretion, I expect, left to individual departments."
However, the 'bottom-up' strategy of allowing the Curriculum Groups to develop policy organically was seen as valuable by Vice Principal College C, who had been involved in a similar arrangement with another university which had been driven by senior staff. This had made no progress and had degenerated into a 'talking shop'.
Experience in FE with its emphasis on managerialism reinforced these perceptual and cultural differences:
"I think we share more views than at the University, where they don't meet each other it seems to me. They have their rooms, their sites, their world...it makes it difficult to deal with an animal with so many different heads" (College C, CG member 3)
"It has been like moving through set concrete...Are we getting the right people? For this you need 'movers' and 'shakers'. I don't think I've met a 'mover' and 'shaker' yet...if you want me to summarise my perception I got the perception they were trying to 'cherry pick' our best students...Why doesn't your Chancellor control it by funding? " (College B CG member 1)
This illustrates a lack of awareness of university management and organization, comparing the 'Chancellor' with a chief executive, someone who can select 'movers and shakers' to expedite policy. The issue of 'cherry picking', of beginning to consider motives and institutional interests was also expressed by Vice Principal, College C:
"I feel as if the University in a sense is trying to build a foundation for itself, and to secure an intake for itself...and...by building a relationship with institutions like us it enables you to know more about the students who are coming to you, and the background they are coming from..."
However, from a managerial perspective the Vice Principal College C was aware that a faster pace might create demands that his small institution would struggle to cope with:
"...we have allowed, I think to some extent, the University to be in the driving seat, partly because of energies at this end, and havn't pushed very hard for things to go that we...we have been happy to let things go at the pace."
These comments of frustration are symptomatic of the need to address the issue of mutual understanding, and especially the need for awareness of organizational cultures. This challenge was stressed by the CG Chair, Health in his comment :
"...the whole culture of higher education is one where staff feel empowered to modify, adapt and recodify policies."
This interpretation echoes Ball's (1994) distinction between the 'discourse' of policy at formation and strategic levels, and 'textual' interpretations at delivery levels. It poses problems for organizations such as the colleges, which are highly managerial, and raises questions about the 'collaborative capability' of organizations such as the University. It leads the CG Chair, Health to state that:
"With many HEI's what's promised sometimes is at variance with reality...so if we are going out to champion widening participation, then we have to ensure that back at the base the staff have taken on board that commitment"
These comments echo the caution he expressed in his expectations of the Curriculum Groups.
Awareness of the Curriculum Groups' potential was balanced by an equivalent sense of frustration on the part of the chairs. Uncertainty over whether the right people from the colleges had attended the meetings was highlighted. The Curriculum Groups had been an effective forum for information exchange, but the CG Chair (AMSS) felt that with Colleges A and B
"...we are treading water; we have gone as far as we can. We need to move through some Chinese wall to a new level"
His perception of College C was that they had made little effort:
"I can only speculate that they have plenty of routes to place their students...They appear from their end not to be moving the agenda along very much."
The reality for this college is that its resources limit the contributions it is able to make to the Curriculum Groups. The Languages Department, for example, has 1.5 full time equivalent staff.
In contrast to perceptual differences with FE staff the CG Chair (AMSS) agreed with College B, member 1 on action required, stating:
"I think there needs to be an intensive working couple of sessions between the teaching staff of the same subjects, followed by an agreed set of procedural outcomes which might include three or four meetings a year. But I think it needs to be once there are agreed objectives, which I'm not sure there are yet."
The CG Chair Health reflected that widening participation was not seen as a policy by many of his colleagues, but as a means to an end; this being recruitment to 'hard to fill'courses, whilst for the colleges it is progression for their students onto high profile courses:
"...the last thing we want are more students applying for Physiotherapy. So we spend a lot of our meetings cooling out the interest and trying to attract students to our less popular courses. And I think the FE colleges have spotted this. So I think the FE colleges think 'Is this a real commitment to widening participation?'...I have some sympathy with the view that we created an expectation, and yet our system for selecting students for various parts of the University programme still has not changed."
In terms of Curriculum Group structure and format CG Chair AMSS acknowledged the formality and potential significance of the semiotic effects of this, but felt that with Colleges A and B they had achieved as much as they could. CG Chair Health was also aware of these issues, and felt that the groups over the year had 'satisfied rather than maximised', but he felt that in this first year this was appropriate given the stress on information exchange. He felt:
"If we are going to develop those Curriculum Groups into other forms of relationships, then I think we need to drill down into the organization a bit further, and think about admissions tutor involvement."
Development would also require, he felt, a greater recognition of mutuality, a joint chairing of meetings and Colleges hosting meetings: an interdependence in strategy building for policy delivery, which is in keeping with Huxham's (op. cit.) concept of 'meta-strategy'. This is also a recognition of the unequal power relationship in collaboration highlighted by Griffiths' (2000) critique of liberal humanist assumptions in broader widening participation policy.
Griffiths asserts that orthodox approaches to collaboration are based on a liberal humanist position. The essence of this is a Rawlsian perspective of an unencumbered self, able to take part in a social contract, which would be between partners considered equals in an open, honest relationship, and working to results based on consensus, and providing a rational basis for action.
Partners, however, are not unencumbered, and are situated in particular circumstances, and influenced by organisational priorities. Griffiths asserts on this basis that it is impossible to operate on a liberal humanist framework; that it is impossible to deal with diversity of perspectives through rationally agreed, universally applicable procedures, and that equality needs to be of respect for the other, and an equality of awareness of the inescapability of all perspectives being partial.
The inequality is acknowledged by the colleges, but there is a respectful deference at this stage, as illustrated by Vice Principal, College B:
"...we were worried about the time commitment for you (referring to the number of Curriculum Groups being run by the University), but the thing is when it comes to us advising the University, we have such a limited experience at this stage I think it would be presumptuous. We know how we work, but we don't know how the University works as a whole'"
Even allowing for cultural and organizational differences, however, the CG Chair, Health, was critical of the University's management of the Curriculum Group strategy over the year:
"...I don't think that I was well prepared for what was expected of the Curriculum Groups. I won't put words in their mouths, but I think my Associate Heads of School would be actually concerned that they might not have said the right things. At our level in our organization, you shouldn't have to have a script that you can read from; you should be able to improvise. I don't think we had guidelines. I don't think we had objectives as to what it was we were meeting for, other than this broad widening participation strategy. At least it made us read about it."
Cultural and organisational differences between the sectors are revealed through these comments, which highlight the extent of the challenges to developing a synergy which will lead to the 'seamless robe' of progression that the University and its partners wish to weave.
After only one year of collaboration there is the likelihood that expectations of the widening participation strategy at the local level may not be completely fulfilled unless there is further change. There is still an overwhelming commitment from all parties, despite the frustration. To use Huxham's (op. cit.,) terminology the collaborative advantages are embraced enthusiastically by all parties in their commitment to the potential offered by the meta-strategy. However, at face value the collaborative capability, particularly of the University, appears to be limited, owing to organizational and cultural factors.
This certainly appears to be the case if the analysis is based on a whole organization systems approach, which Huxham uses. However, the organizational and cultural complexity of the University, and the fact that this exercise is only one year into its development, need to be taken into account in analyzing where, at whole organization and intra-organizational levels, capability of collaboration (or the potential for its emergence) exists for the purpose of effective inter-sectoral policy development and implementation.
Issues of power, perspective and lack of organisational synergy are evident at this early stage of development. However, Fullan (2000) asserts that successful cross-sector collaboration requires the development of mutual empathy and relationships across diverse groups, which take time. Success therefore depends, according to Fullan on the development of meaningful relationships and partnerships at micro, macro, and in particular meso levels. Application of this model to the partnership suggests a need to ensure these relationships are developing at strategic and developmental levels. The Curriculum Groups may offer potential at micro and meso levels to provide a forum for the development of mutual understanding on policy and practice. Sparrow (1998) has argued that even within organisations:
There needs to be a recognition that insights into each other's perceptions are necessary in modern organisations...Workgroups can often have particular 'mindsets'...the views that workgroups hold about each other depend on available data, subjective preferences and willingness to reconsider a view held about another person.
In the light of CG Chair's (AMSS) comments on subject group perspectives and 'departments', this is clearly the case for the University. However, this is not exclusive to the University: witness the reference by the Vice Principal, College A to the 'sixth form college', effectively the perpetuation of a separate organizational entity on a separate site within a large mixed economy college.
College B CG member 1 felt frustrated as a 'mover and shaker' in his dealings with the University, and the CG Chair (AMSS) believed:
"...they may well be more managerial. They are used to things being handed down rather than making them happen. Three months is a long time for them whereas it's nothing at all for us. On the other hand, I'm not entirely sure that they've come to the meetings buzzing with ideas of how to make things happen either."
This absence of 'ideas' might be explained by the apparent deference of the smaller partners, exemplified by the reluctance to appear 'presumptuous' referred to earlier by Vice Principal, College B, as well as discursive factors potentially acting as reinforcers of relative status, such as the prestigious settings and the determining of agendas and chairing of meetings by the University.
The perceptual frames, however, reveal the challenge. There appears to be a need to develop mutual understanding. Separate experiences of different sectors of education have had their influence in shaping perspectives and priorities on the processes of collaboration, with consequences for policy formulation and implementation. Structures and discourse in the institutions have influenced identity; for example, the image of 'movers and shakers' fits comfortably within the hegemonic, managerialist discourse of the FE sector (Whitehead, 1999). This links into theory on the social and situated nature of learning.
The Curriculum Groups are effectively the bringing together of two different communities of practice. Lave and Wenger (1991), Brown and Duguid (1991), Eckert (1993), and Zucchermaglio (1996), have conceptualised the community of practice as an informal aggregation defined by membership and the shared manner in which they do things and interpret events. There is resonance in this concept with Bourdieu's (1979) 'habitus', and Blackler's (1993) activity system theory. The emphases on 'knowing' rather than 'knowledge', and learning as a social process through activity help identify a means of analysing the tensions and barriers in the process of collaboration. This is consistent with the requirements of developing understanding stressed by Fullan (op. cit.,).
The community of practice concept helps to understand the process by which the transmission of tacit knowledge and of 'knowledge-in-action' takes place: the processes are at once social and cognitive:
...a community of practice is an intrinsic condition for the existence of knowledge, not least because it provides the interpretive support necessary for making sense of its heritage. (Lave and Wenger, 1991:98)
While the concept is helpful in understanding the dimension of social processes that need to be explored in the formulation of a shared understanding of policy across the sectors, it has to be acknowledged, particularly, but not exclusively for the University, that there are within its devolved organizational and cultural framework a plurality of communities. In the case of the University it would seem that the most 'collaboratively capable' unit of organization would be at Fullan's (op. cit.,) 'micro' level; the subject group level. This would appear to fit with the findings of the HEFCE (1998b) research on collaboration between FE and pre-1992 universities. In terms of the Pro Vice Chancellor's comment, of the biggest challenge to the implementation of policy being the acceptance of its ownership at local levels within the organization, it also indicates that the policy, within a broad discursive framework, is most likely to be given textual (Ball, 1994) meaning at the local, subject specialist interface.
Gherardi et. al. (1998) use the concept of legitimate peripheral participation as the process through which members go to enter the communities. It
focuses on the relationship between learning and the organisational situation in which it occurs...the journey through the different levels of learning can only take place in connection with the institutionalisation of the journey, which reaffirms that the process is social and not simply cognitive in character (Gherardi et. al. 1998)
The Curriculum Groups are providing a forum for mutual legitimate peripheral participation at a micro-organisational level. Griffiths' (op. cit.) critique of liberal humanist assumptions about the ability of 'collaborators' to deliver policy reveals that issues of power differentials, interests, and perspectives need to be at least acknowledged in the process of 'coming to know' (Trowler and Knight, 2000). To varying degrees the college representatives at strategic and developmental levels are aware, and at this stage of the development apparently accepting, of the power and status differentials in the relationship, but as CG Chair Health says:
"...if we are going to take this forward we need to meet our FE colleagues, sooner rather than later,I think, to evaluate where we are...And to do it in a way that they feel empowered and able to say what they really think about it...
As an organisation if we don't do something about that (both the processes and objectives of collaboration) it'll fall into disregard very quickly."
This indicates a recognition of a need to move the process forward.
The University appears aware of its dependence on its partners in formulating and delivering its widening participation strategy. The potential for the development of mutual understanding through the Curriculum Groups to further the widening participation strategy, over time, and through attention to processes of policy development, exists. An issue is whether this process of mutual understanding needs to be made an explicit objective of the groups,
In which practitioners are conceptualised as actively engaged with the process of policy making, in ways that may modify its forms and messages. (Ozga, 1999)
However, comments from the FE sector and indeed the CG Chairs, might indicate that the Curriculum Groups have achieved what they can within the limited strategic guidance provided. The strategy over the year has effectively been devolved; 'bottom-up'. This has achieved a significant amount in terms of what the Curriculum Groups were originally tasked to do over the year, such as curriculum mapping and alignment, enrichment and moves to staff development. However, in terms of strategy it would appear the Curriculum Groups have felt the need for clearer structures and steers.
This is certainly the case for the FE staff, used to a more managerial approach to policy development. This is not to suggest that a 'top down' approach is appropriate. However, Oakes et. al (1998) recognise that while top-down initiatives tend not to work, there is still a need for the direction provided by top-down mandates. At issue for the University is the tension of an institutional strategy within a collegial organization and culture.
Fullan (2000), in theorising inter-organisational collaborative processes, stresses the significance of the 'inside-outside' as well as the 'top-down, bottom-up' dimension, and highlights the role of 'boundary spanners':
...especially in alliances and partnerships where knowledge utilisation depends on understanding the cultures and knowledge of both partners (p. 44).
The Curriculum Groups provide an opportunity for 'inside-outside' knowledge development. However, the satisfaction and enthusiasm of College A's experience of the Curriculum Groups was tempered with the sense of frustration and lack of power that constrained the progress that they felt they could make. It was felt that this progress was conditional on decisions higher up the strategic ladder of the partnership, and that progress at Curriculum Group level was ahead of formal policy formulation and development.
After only one year it is possible only to offer a picture of what the partners feel of their attempts to collaborate to develop and implement a widening participation strategy. Partnerships between FE and HE are assumed by policy makers and funding bodies to be agents of that policy, and capable of collaboration. All parties in this study are committed to the meta-strategy and embrace the collaborative advantages it offers. At issue is the collaborative capability of the partnership, predominantly owing to organizational and cultural differences within and between the partners. The Vice Principal College A commented that formalisation of the relationship through association has resulted in a reduction of the speed and spontaneity of collaborative links, citing the relative speed with which a '2 + 2' programme in Information Technology had previously been established.
However, this illustrates that HE is capable of collaboration with FE partners. At issue in these early stages of the partnership is the appropriate 'unit of engagement'. The case study illustrates that for this pre-1992 university, the most productive outcomes have been links between subject specialists across the sectors through the Curriculum Groups (reinforcing HEFCE's (1998b) findings). Attempts at institutional level have been less successful. Yet this process is emergent; policy and the processes of its delivery are developing and being shaped as the relationships develop. In so doing it will be interesting to study whether the developing relationships enhance the capability of the partnership to collaborate to widen access to Higher Education.
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