Universities are trying to fit a “square plug into a round hole” by attempting to “tack on” employability skills to a three-year academic degree, a college representative has said.
Nick Davy, higher education policy manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC), argued that England instead needed a better developed vocational higher education system, including a growth in higher apprenticeships.
Speaking to Times Higher Education at the AoC’s annual conference in Birmingham on 21 November, Mr Davy said that one of the “core principles” of traditional universities was that they were not about preparing students for work, except in some professions and academic research.
Employability was not part of the “culture” of older universities, which were “trying to tack something on to a discipline-led academic degree that doesn’t really work”.
He stressed that this was not a criticism of universities, which played an “absolutely critical part in our society and higher education system”, nor was it to suggest that academic, three-year degrees did not teach skills that were useful in the workplace.
However, he added that “these degrees are not about employability but acquiring an in-depth knowledge of a subject discipline. You can’t fit a square plug into a round hole.”
Colleges, on the other hand, had continued teaching vocational higher education qualifications that had been dropped by many former polytechnics when they became universities in 1992, he said.
Higher tuition fees and a tougher job market since the financial crisis have brought universities under pressure to ensure their students win jobs after graduation.
In a seminar on graduate employability earlier this month, David Winter, head of the careers consultancy C2, which is owned by the University of London, said that the sector was currently “throwing money” at student work placements, internships and skills awards.
Mr Davy estimated that colleges had increased their number of higher education students by about 4,000 in 2012-13 – a small rise, given that in 2009-10 an estimated 177,000 higher education students were studying in further education colleges.
Colleges had gained about 7,500 higher education places from the government’s “margin” system, which in 2012-13 reallocated 20,000 places to providers with lower fees.
But they had simultaneously lost 2,000-3,000 students owing to places being withdrawn by partner universities, he explained.
Mr Davy said there was a demand from students for more flexible and diverse higher education, something colleges could satisfy.
But he acknowledged it was a “fair question” why colleges, which generally charge lower tuition fees than universities, had not attracted more students since fees had risen in 2012-13.
“Is it because there’s no demand for our product, or is it because of barriers such as validation times [for degree-awarding powers] or relationships with awarding bodies?” he asked.
So far, only three further education colleges have won foundation degree-awarding powers: Newcastle College and New College, Durham, which were the first colleges to gain the powers in 2011; and Grimsby Institute, which won them this year.