The current divide between further and higher education could become less and less "fit for purpose" and the concept of further education should possibly be abandoned altogether, academics have argued.
According to a University of Sheffield study, there is a lack of rationale behind the separation of England's two tertiary sectors, and current conditions instead favour an open system of colleges and universities.
Researchers examined the impact of the separation of further and higher education on widening participation and promoting progression. They found that policy development for dual-sector education was "uneven and unstable".
Gareth Parry, professor of education at Sheffield and a co-director of the ESRC project, said the lead role for policy development in this area had been given to the higher education sector, which had competing interests.
"You've one sector trying to make policy for another sector. We think that is problematic and one of the reasons policy has been underdeveloped for higher education in the colleges," he said.
The researchers also found that further education colleges had yet to be widely accepted as "normal and necessary" locations for higher education.
Professor Parry said government efforts to get colleges to focus their missions could result in their moving in different directions, with some targeting mainly young people and others looking to higher education and adult skills.
"Along with an extension of the compulsory phase, future arrangements for tertiary education and training favour a more open system of colleges and universities - one marked by diversity and no longer organised into sectors," he said.
"If the concept of further education is thereby exposed as redundant, it should be abandoned."
The researchers acknowledge that there does not seem to be much enthusiasm for removing the sectors in England or for merging their funding bodies, but they call for further and higher education to be regarded as "parts of a common enterprise", with mechanisms to recognise and support this.