A flowering that requires healthy roots

November 14, 1997

If higher education is to stand a chance of widening participation, David Melville claims that the flow from further education must be increased

The prime minister announced at the Labour party conference on September 30 that the government had set a target for an extra 500,000 people in further and higher education by 2002. I would expect that at least 400,000 of these would be at further education level. Current projections of expansion of higher education participation suggest, at most, the need for an additional 100,000 students. The 400,000 further education places should be targeted towards widening and increasing participation in further education of young people and adults.

Mr Blair has acknowledged that the further education sector has a vital role to play in addressing the government's economic and social agenda. To achieve the sizeable growth in higher education which has been proposed by the Dearing committee, a substantial investment must be made in the provision of further education. The expansion of further education will target those who do not choose to continue in education after 16 and, more significantly, the large proportion of adults who would not previously have considered the prospect of continuing their education. Having achieved further education qualifications, many of these students will continue into higher education. Currently 31 per cent of higher education students enter from the further education sector. If higher education is to stand a chance of widening participation to under-represented groups, the flow from further education needs to increase.

Helena Kennedy's seminal report, Learning Works, put simply, answers the difficult question of how we tackle educational under-achievement in such a large part of our population.

As the largest provider for 16 to 19-year-olds, the further education sector is committed to the government's Target 2000 agenda, which is seeking to increase the number of 16 to 19-year-olds participating in education to at least level 2. Government figures indicate that 14 per cent of 16-year-olds do not enter any form of post-16 education or training. By the age of 18 the figure has increased to 40 per cent. As well as increasing participation, expansion is expected based on the projected 16 to 18-year-old population of almost 50,000 people by the year 2000.

Ms Kennedy has made the case for expanding further education numbers to address the lifelong learning agenda. The Kennedy report is based on the creation of an inclusive learning society. Kennedy sets out a long-term vision for a national strategy to widen participation and increase achievement and success in post-16 learning, based on the premise that learning for all is central to economic prosperity and social cohesion. The report highlights that one in three of the adult population has undertaken no formal learning since leaving school. The further education sector is in a position to work with individuals, employers and communities to address this deficiency. The Kennedy vision is of an entitlement to level 3 education and is based on the premise that many will continue into higher education. Since its publication, the Kennedy report has been greeted with acclamation by college principals, further education staff, politicians and ministers. The overwhelming view echoes Kennedy's words: "We know how to widen participation - now we need to make it happen."

There is a strong case for the remaining 100,000 places to be predominantly for sub-degree higher education. The Dearing committee signalled this byrecommending the immediate lift of the cap for such students. The case has been well made by employers: they are persistent in their message that they need people in the workplace who have been trained and who possess the key skills necessary to "hit the ground running". People are no longer in jobs for life and need to be able to constantly update their skills and retrain for new jobs. We know that there is a shortage of skilled technicians in many fields of work, particularly engineering. Sub-degree higher education provision which is offered mainly in further education colleges specifically addresses these issues.

The term "sub-degree" does, however, misrepresent the plethora of qualifications which make up this provision. The term implies an inferior kind of award and fails to recognise that many of the qualifications represent the highest aspiration for many further education students or are for professional/career enhancement, taken by individuals after the completion of degree and postgraduate studies. It is vital that this provision be clearly presented to ensure that the people who will benefit most from such courses understand what options are available to them and how these articulate with other qualifications. The proposed higher education qualifications framework is capable of doing this. Individuals must know what they are able to access, what they need to progress to access qualifications and what their opportunities are beyond each point of access.

Clearly most of the further education expansion will be in the further education sector which, besides the colleges, embraces adult education services throughout the country. However, 44,000 students currently study for further education qualifications in higher education institutions and these can be expected to take a share of the expansion. There is a strong case for the sub-degree work highlighted by Dearing, and HND/HNCs in particular, being expanded chiefly in further education colleges. This was articulated by Dearing and relates primarily to the demonstrated ability of the further education sector to expand this provision while it has been contracted in higher education institutions, and also to the demand for it which is created by progression from further education level courses.

The expansion of provision should occur wherever high-quality provision can be offered, regardless of the type of institution or which sector it is in. Faced with having to pay a sizeable proportion of their tuition costs, many higher education students will not have the luxury of being able to choose freely and may, out of necessity, have to stay in their home regions to study. They will, therefore, seek the best value for money within their locality.

The Further Education Funding Council has a large part to play in establishing a culture of lifelong learning. There are many areas which are and will be explored with the Higher Education Funding Council for England to promote collaboration between further education colleges and higher education institutions. The FEFC is particularly keen to address widening participation with HEFC and to look at ways in which the Kennedy agenda can link to higher education provision.

There will be a need for strong collaborative links to be established and sustained between further education colleges and higher education institutions to ensure that students are getting the education they need. As the FEFC does for further education provision, so the HEFC will need to have mechanisms to ensure adequate and sufficient local higher education provision.

To meet the Kennedy and lifelong learning agendas we must look beyond the recommendations of the Dearing committee and towards a wider view of post-16 education. There is a need for future education policies to steer away from strict demarcation between the two sectors and towards more coherent post-16 provision which offers opportunities at all levels and at any time of an individual's life. It should become accepted that further education and higher education courses and qualifications are available at a wide range of institutions, regardless of sector. With a wide variety of further and higher education institutions covering a broad spectrum of types and missions, the determining factor on the location of any provision should be the quality and standards, not artificial demarcation by institutional type.

David Melville is chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council for England.

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