If and when half of all young people experience higher education by the age of 30, it will be thanks in no small measure to today's further education colleges. The government's target tends to be debated in terms of three-year honours degrees, but much of the expansion is likely to come in work-based courses that are colleges' natural territory. Colleges may also be best placed to attract students from poor backgrounds, who are likely to favour institutions close to home.
By the time the 50 per cent target becomes a genuine prospect, a number of colleges will have merged with universities. Some are doing so already and others are sure to go down the same route. But, unless education secretary Charles Clarke has other ideas to impart to the Association of Colleges next week, the remainder will continue on their mixed-economy path. Our survey of further education shows that colleges already have close to 100,000 students taking higher education courses.
The question for Mr Clarke is whether to let the sector's higher education role evolve naturally, or whether a select group of colleges should be encouraged to take on the mantle of new polytechnics. Too much specialisation might destabilise institutions that are already in a financially precarious state. But ministers harbour understandable doubts about colleges' ability to deliver high-quality provision in everything from basic skills to A-level and degree courses.
The quality debate became more confused this week with the publication of conflicting reports on standards in colleges. While the Learning and Skills Council boasted of 90 per cent satisfaction among adult learners, the Quality Assurance Agency found that flawed assessment procedures were undermining confidence in some courses. Colleges already resented the fact that in future they alone would be subject to universal subject reviews, but the first 73 remodelled reports went some way to justifying the decision. The QAA judged that many colleges were insufficiently self-critical to be guardians of their own standards.
Such criticisms apply to universities that validate college degrees as much as to those in further education. But they must be addressed if the sector is to become the engine of expansion. The boundaries between further and higher education are crumbling, and colleges are adept at responding to local needs. However, they must win the quality debate if they are to justify the investment that will be required for their stake in higher education to grow.