Employers' perceptions of higher education courses in further education colleges compared with universities are to be tested this year in two government-backed research projects.
The results are expected to inform policy-makers on where best to target resources for future growth in higher education to achieve the government's 50 per cent participation target.
The first project, conducted by John Brennan of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information, will analyse employers' views on the role and contribution of further education colleges in delivering vocational, sub-degree higher education. It will compare their perceived effectiveness with that of higher education institutions.
It will also question the reasons behind employers' tendency to recruit graduates rather than those armed with vocationally relevant advanced sub-degree qualifications, such as Higher National Diplomas and foundation degrees.
The project will test colleges' assertions that they offer better support for students than universities, have closer links with employers and have higher concentrations of students from non-traditional backgrounds.
The findings will be supported by those of a second project conducted by Gareth Parry, professor of education at Sheffield University. Professor Parry is looking into what makes higher education offered in further education colleges distinctive.
The project will also look into the lessons that can be learnt from the Scottish and Welsh systems.
Both projects are funded by the Learning and Skills Council with backing from the Council for Industry and Higher Education and the Department for Education and Skills.
The tender specification for the first project says evidence suggests that the 50 per cent target is most likely to be achieved by encouraging more learners to gain NVQ level 3, and progress to foundation degrees, HNDs and NVQ 4.
These qualifications are also key to the intermediate vocational level that needs to be developed to fill the UK's skills gap.