The expansion of higher education provision in further education colleges has not happened as quickly as the government had hoped, Vince Cable has admitted.
Speaking on 21 November at the Association of Colleges’ annual conference in Birmingham, the business secretary said that such growth “has happened” but “it hasn’t happened as fast and radically as I’d hoped”.
Universities had withdrawn places they had previously offered through colleges in order to protect their own student numbers, he acknowledged.
Expanding the amount of higher education delivered in colleges in England was one of the aims of the 2011 higher education White Paper, which argued that this would increase competition and diversity in the system.
This academic year, 20,000 undergraduate places - the “margin” created by top-slicing universities’ previous allocation of places - have been distributed to institutions charging less than £7,500 a year. Just over half of the margin places have been given to colleges.
But earlier this year, the government announced that the margin would be reduced to just 5,000 places in 2013-14.
Mr Cable told delegates that the government was “looking afresh at the funding arrangements for core-margin to try to move that [the expansion of higher education in colleges] faster”.
Asked in a subsequent press conference whether this meant that the number of margin places would grow in the future, he declined to give a specific answer.
“It isn’t just a question of the scale of the margin,” Mr Cable said.
Universities had found that “if they expanded [their own] FE college provision it was at their own expense” in terms of places, which was something that “shouldn’t have happened”, he said.
As a result, colleges have reported that their partner universities are withdrawing places in order to take on more students directly.
About half of colleges’ higher education places are directly funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, so cannot be withdrawn in this way.
However, these colleges still require a university to validate their programmes, and there are fears that universities will be more reluctant to do so in case this dilutes the “brand” of their degree.