English review ‘focusing’ on technical alternative to degrees

Association of Colleges head says new route should be coupled with ‘limit’ on number of students taking bachelor’s degrees

November 14, 2018
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Bespoke: with a ‘flexible and more labour market-oriented approach’ to higher education, people could ‘dip in and dip out’

The review of post-18 education funding in England is “focusing on something more akin” to further education colleges’ plans for a new technical route in higher education, and this should be coupled with a “limit” on student numbers in bachelor’s degrees, according to the chief executive of the Association of Colleges.

David Hughes also said that the review’s leader, Philip Augar, had “showed an interest” in the question of whether to shake up regulation, where the AoC has proposed creating a new tertiary regulator covering colleges and universities.

The review panel is said to have discussed with ministers early proposals that include lowering the tuition fee cap from £9,250 to between £6,500 and £7,500, increasing direct public funding to replace some of the lost fee income and introducing student number controls to limit that new funding.

The AoC’s submission to the Augar review called for a “credible, legitimate, alternative route to the bachelor’s route”, Mr Hughes said.

That proposal, he continued, was partly “based on a sense that we can’t, as a society, afford everyone to go away and do a three-year residential bachelor’s degree at a cost of £50,000, however that cost gets shared…Whether the state pays, the individual pays, the employer pays – somebody’s paying, and it’s quite an expensive way to get the skills that we need as an economy.”

The AoC’s review submission called for “a minimum entry qualification for access to bachelor degree higher education for those under the age of 21” – in effect a cap on student numbers.

While it was “absolutely right that a lot of people” do take the bachelor’s degree route, Mr Hughes continued, the AoC has “said, why don’t we, in a sense, try to limit the numbers going in, but in a positive way, by making an alternative very attractive?”. This alternative would be a “much more flexible and perhaps more labour market-oriented approach that allows people to dip in and dip out more, [to do] much more part-time [study] while they are working”, he said.

This would, he added, “allow more people to participate in higher education”, but “higher education seems to have been equated with a degree – and we just need to break that culture, I think”.

Mr Hughes also said: “Suddenly there’s a sense, not among everyone, but within Whitehall, that maybe the model [of higher education] we’ve got is creating a lot of people who will be underemployed, and it’s a very expensive way of doing that.”

He added: “Therefore, I think, universities doing that three-year undergraduate model have got a tough job to convince [the government] that more of that is going to be a good investment; which is why, I think, the Augar review is focusing on something more akin to what we’ve proposed around the [sub-degree level]…because that looks like a better investment that would give a better return to Treasury.”

In September, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that further education and sixth-form college funding per student had fallen by about 8 per cent since 2010, when the Conservatives came to power, while for universities funding per undergraduate student was 22 per cent higher than it was in 2011.

Mr Hughes said that he “would like to think universities wouldn’t think we are ‘going after their cash’, because what universities do is really important; we’re not trying to undermine that, we’re genuinely trying to set something up that helps more people”.

The AoC’s review submission was not “a call for more funding of colleges”; rather “it was a call for more funding of people”, he said.

Colleges “will, if that happens, pick up quite a lot of that income, but so will quite a few universities”, Mr Hughes added.

There was scope for a “positive relationship” between colleges and universities to “share some of that Level 4 and 5 space”, below the Level 6 of bachelor’s degrees, Mr Hughes argued.

Qualifications at these levels should be seen as “stand-alone”, he argued (as well as allowing progression to bachelor’s degrees), and should be renamed to give the public better recognition of such awards.

On the review, Mr Hughes said that there were “things that worry me about whether it will be allowed to be implemented”, the first being “whether the prime minister will last – because it seems to me it [the review] is very much associated with Theresa May”.

The AoC’s review submission said that the government “should change the remits of the Office for Students and the Education and Skills Funding Agency, creating a new regulator operating with three parallel arms covering schools, colleges and universities”.

Will Mr Augar look at regulation?

“We’ve talked to him about it,” said Mr Hughes. “He’s certainly showed an interest in it…Whether they will make recommendations about it, I don’t know. I think they should.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Degree shift: English review ‘eyeing’ technical alternative

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