When the prime minister launched the Post-18 Education and Funding Review last year, she was clear that it was about “breaking down false boundaries between further and higher education, so we can create a system which is truly joined up”.
These were encouraging words and as we now await the findings of this review, there is ongoing discussion as to how FE and HE can sit together and work effectively in the same 18+ arena.
Both colleges and universities bring important assets to the HE sector, meaning that partnership and collaboration between the two is key. Yet the value of FE-based higher education must be more widely acknowledged. This needs to be reflected by a fairer distribution of government funding and for colleges not to be considered a “second-best” option.
Gaining a degree and/or another higher qualification is proven to increase an individual’s lifetime earning potential and improve social mobility. Successive governments have quite rightly continued to invest in and promote HE as the “gold standard” educational route. But this gold standard level of education must be accessible to as many people as possible – and this is precisely why college-based HE is so important.
Widening participation is at the heart of FE, made possible with flexible/part-time study options, access courses and, in many cases, lower tuition fees. The vast majority of part-time HE learners and apprentices at colleges are over 25 years of age – reflecting the way in which colleges enable people to return to education and gain a degree and/or professional qualification slightly later in life.
More than 150,000 people study higher courses in a college, with about 30 per cent of these on honours degree courses (compared with 90 per cent of students at universities). The remainder are studying for other higher level qualifications including hands-on foundation degrees and HNDs (higher national diplomas). The majority of college-based HE courses are applied subjects, involving high levels of employer input and work-based study.
FE has traditionally had (and continues to have) close links with employers and, crucially, focuses on skills needs within the local area, in line with local-enterprise partnership priorities.
Students studying HE courses at a college tend to live closer, with an average travelling distance of 15 miles compared with a 53-mile average undertaken by students studying at HE institutes.
Put simply: colleges are supporting local people to get the qualifications that they need to fill the skills gaps in their own regions. This is particularly important at a time when our country is facing growing skills shortages across many key industries.
Promoting aspiration and upskilling is key to social mobility, improved standards of living and a stronger economy. The FE sector is a true driver of this, with many colleges (including our own) adopting social enterprise models that focus on giving back to and being an intrinsic part of the local community.
Such a localised approach is highly beneficial, offering support for students both inside and outside the classroom. This includes personal, academic and study skills support, as well as extra assistance for students with additional learning needs.
The teaching excellence framework highlights the many colleges that offer high-quality HE – with 16 achieving gold ratings. The latest National Student Survey rankings also revealed that many college-based HE students were highly satisfied with the teaching and experience that they are gaining.
As with all good business models, collaboration is key – and this is very much the case with colleges and universities. We work closely with our partner universities, creating between us high-quality, skills and employer-focused higher education provision. We are keen to celebrate our differences but must be mindful that we each have our own strengths.
The contribution of college-based HE to widening participation and improving social mobility outcomes is both distinct and unique, yet the discrepancy in funding over the last few years is stark. Colleges have seen an 8 per cent drop in real terms since 2010, forcing them to cut back on courses, staff and student services.
However, I am hopeful that the government’s review of post-18 education will enable universities and colleges to continue working together effectively, giving people of all ages and from all backgrounds the opportunity to benefit from higher education.
Sam Parrett OBE is CEO of the London & South East Education Group.