More than 60,000 students are invisible participants in higher education because their studies in further education colleges are not recognised by funding bodies or the outside world, a report commissioned by the Learning and Skills Council has found.
The students, studying on LSC-funded courses leading to 600 separate qualifications at sub-degree level and above, are not counted in the 50 per cent target for widening participation because such courses have yet to be formally recognised as higher education.
A survey conducted by the Learning and Skills Development Agency found that colleges delivering this non-prescribed higher education (NPHE) felt it had become "invisible" as far as funding bodies were concerned.
A report on the findings says that one of the problems identified by colleges is that although such provision is higher education, it is "not considered as such by the outside world".
It says: "Although LSC was known to have the power to fund NPHE, colleges believed that NPHE would always seem peripheral if funded by LSC, because it [LSC] was seen as primarily responsible for work to level three."
Although some of the courses are in humanities disciplines, most are vocational, with the majority in business and administration and taken by mature students. The report says more work is needed by the LSC, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Quality Assurance Agency to develop a system for classifying them.
If NPHE courses were redefined and placed within the national qualifications frameworks, more than 60,000 students would become "visible as participants in higher education, for which the further education sector will be given credit", it says.
But it warns: "If this were to be counted as growth in participation, it would be a falsehood, and so participation in NPHE would have to be tracked back and included in the baseline."
Transferring funding of NPHE to Hefce might raise the profile and status of the courses. But if the vocational nature of such courses for people at work became secondary to their role as a progression route to university, this could be "detrimental", the report says.
"Regardless of which funding council has the responsibility for funding NPHE, it should be re-designated and recognised as higher education," it adds.
Ursula Howard, the LSDA's director of research, said: "One of the key findings of our research is the need to raise the profile of further education colleges that provide higher education and to clarify the policies over how this kind of work is planned, funded and inspected.
"We look forward to the anticipated higher profile that higher education in further education will play in achieving the 50 per cent participation targets for higher education."
'Plans to axe GNVQs could hamper access'
College heads have warned that government plans to axe lower level GNVQs and replace them with existing qualifications may hamper efforts to widen access to higher education.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is consulting on proposals to withdraw GNVQ levels one and two from 2006. It is to issue a questionnaire to colleges to canvass views on how to replace them.
The government has asked the QCA to review existing qualifications, including the vocational GCSE, to see how closely they match a set of principles that are intrinsic to GNVQs.
But the Association of Colleges said that it was not convinced that existing alternative qualifications would be sufficient to meet the needs of many young people who would have benefited from the GNVQ.
And it has warned that its own research has found that a significant number of students would not have gone on to higher education without having gained access through the GNVQ route.
Last year, more than 55,000 students took level-two GNVQs, 14,000 took the level-one qualification, and more than ,000 students entered higher education holding advanced GNVQs.
Judith Norrington, the AoC's director of curriculum and quality, said: "The GNVQ is a programme that provides a general education with a flavour of a vocational area or a subject. Neither the vocational A levels nor the vocational GNVQ match those features since they are both trying to look like an academic qualification."