Completing our series on widening access to university, Phil Baty reports on further education's role.
Further education colleges will soon be the primary recruiting ground for higher education, college leaders predict.
Schools' hegemony as the main provider of undergraduates is already being eroded, and the government's agenda for widening participation has yet to kick in fully.
The schools' position will be further worn away by the planned increase of nearly half a million students in further education, the lifelong learning initiatives such as the University for Industry, the proposed cash incentives to universities to take on students from non-traditional and disadvantaged backgrounds, the new pick-and-mix qualifications and the college provision for part-timers.
"Over the past 15 years or so, the college share of the higher education recruitment market has been increasing steadily," said John Brennan, director of policy at the Association of Colleges. "It is not hard to see that in time, colleges will be the dominant providers of higher education students."
Last year, the proportion of students entering higher education from schools was at its lowest level since the Universities and Colleges Admission Service was established in 1994. According to UCAS data, in 1997 schools, including both maintained and independent, provided 45 per cent of all students accepted on to degree courses, compared with 33 per cent from colleges and sixth-form colleges. In 1994 the schools' share of the market was 48 per cent, compared with 32 per cent from colleges. The remaining fifth of students are largely from overseas.
The shift, Mr Brennan believes, has been brought about by the erosion of the A level as the exclusive passport to higher education. "The A level is still the dominant route to university, but its dominance is fading," he said.
In 1997, according to UCAS, 64.4 per cent of all students who entered university entered with A levels. In 1994 the percentage was 67.4.
Schools have been unable to increase their share of A-level entrants. In 1997, 59 per cent of the 178,000 students who went to university through A levels earned their qualification in a school, and the figure has remained largely constant since 1994.
A steadily growing minority of students now enter university with alternative qualifications, most of which are provided in further education. "We are seeing more adults with access courses, mature students, those with other level-three qualifications such as General National Vocational Qualifications or BTEC diplomas in colleges," Mr Brennan said. "This is where colleges come into their own."
The AoC, he said, fully supports moves to create "a wider variety of curriculum possibilities and more flexible modes of attendance".
The growth of the alternative qualification is already having an effect on the market.
UCAS figures show that the number of students applying to university with the Advanced-level GNVQ has more than trebled in the past three years: from 9,380 in 1995 to 29,757 in 1997. In 1997, 13,785 students with Advanced GNVQs were accepted to first-degree courses; this compares with 304 in 1994.
The vast majority of these successful GNVQ students came from the college sector. In 1997, 67 per cent earned their GNVQs in the further education sector, compared with 22 per cent who earned their GNVQs in schools.
The number of students entering degree courses via access to higher education or higher education foundation courses has held steady since an explosion after their emergence in the early 1980s. In 1997, 17,624 students entered higher education through access courses, compared with 14,751 in 1994. However, this represented a slight fall as a percentage of entrants to higher education. Mr Brennan attributes the fall to wider social reasons, such as the state of the jobs market, which influences adults' decisions to try higher education for the first time. "There is also now a smaller pool of adults who have not had the chance of higher education the first time round," he said.
Further education provides almost all access to higher education or foundation courses. Fewer than 1 per cent of these access courses were provided in schools.
Of the additional 430,000 students planned for further education by 2002, starting with 150,000 next year, the AoC believes that larger numbers than originally anticipated will end up learning at level three - university entry level - creating a massive increase in the demand for higher education.
"The expansion is partly about those who have no qualifications at all," Mr Brennan said, "but it is also about those who have only lower level qualifications who want to get to level three."
The 16 to 19-year-olds in colleges tend to study full-time at level three, and there are far fewer adults studying at this level. "The government seeks to target those people who have not progressed beyond level one or two. It wants to take them to level three, where higher education will become a feasible option," he says.
Ursula Howard, director of research at the Further Education Development Agency, agrees. "There is bound to be a major increase in the number of people who move to level-three qualifications. And for many of these people, higher education might be the right option. In broad terms, there will be a much better link between colleges and universities and a new demand for degrees that universities will not be able to ignore."
Universities are already shifting to adapt to a changed market, offering more flexible learning programmes and non-traditional courses. But admissions tutors at autonomous institutions have the final say about who they accept on to courses and who they do not.
Alan Smithers, director of Brunel University's centre for education and employment research, said that schools will always play a "major role" in preparing students for higher education.
"Schools will always play the differentiating function," he said. "They will identify talent in the early years and prepare students for the top courses. Further education is more about applied education and vocational education, for degree courses in new universities, and this should expand. But if you look at what schools do and what colleges do, the two sectors are clearly playing two distinct roles."