Sub-degree higher education courses in England should be delivered mainly in universities, not further education colleges, according to a report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute.
The report, written by London South Bank University vice-chancellor Dave Phoenix, says that if the government wants to address the growing skills gap in the UK, it has to reverse the decline in Level 4 and Level 5 qualifications – such as foundation degrees or Higher National Certificates or Diplomas – particularly in technical subjects.
The report will be seen as an attempt to shape the conclusions of the government’s ongoing review of post-18 education in England – expected to herald the shift of some higher education provision into further education.
Currently, Level 4 and 5 qualifications are offered at universities, further education colleges and alternative providers, but only 10 per cent of UK adults hold these qualifications as their highest award, according to the Hepi report.
The majority of people studying at Levels 4 and 5 do so at university as part of a degree, but the qualifications are often regarded simply as exit awards for those leaving a degree programme before completion, it says.
“We’ve got a very disjointed approach to education in the UK,” Professor Phoenix told Times Higher Education. Further education should be properly resourced to focus on Level 2 and 3 courses such as National Vocational Qualifications, he argued. Then, if the provision of Levels 4 and 5 is recognised as a focus for higher education institutions, “the college sector gains, the universities gain, individuals gain and, ultimately, the country gains”, he said.
An interim report from the Department for Education published on 14 August, as part of its own review of Level 4 and 5 qualifications, agreed that the spread across further and higher education was a problem. Further education colleges and universities are “increasingly competing for students” and providers are forced to navigate both the higher education and further education regulatory and funding regimes, it said.
Levels 4 and 5 have to be clearly regulated under the higher education framework, as they have a different academic environment in terms of delivery from Levels 2 and 3, Professor Phoenix said.
“There are some large colleges that deliver Levels 4 and 5 exceptionally well, but there is a danger that institutions, particularly smaller institutions, which are not appropriately resourced, who move into this provision will dilute the perception of the quality of our higher education,” he said.
For this to work, however, universities will need to present foundation degrees and Higher National Diplomas as “positive targets” rather than as early exit awards from undergraduate degrees, the report says.
The key here is getting employers to engage and to show the benefit of these stand-alone qualifications in terms of career development and job opportunities, according to Professor Phoenix.
Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said that he hoped that the report would not only feed into the government’s Level 4 and 5 review, but also the ongoing review of post-18 education.
“Universities have a proud history of offering these kinds of qualification, but the funding system has driven them out,” Mr Hillman said. The current student loan system encourages learners towards a full degree at 18 and has discouraged mature and part-time learners, who have traditionally been the biggest groups studying at Levels 4 and 5, he said.
Liz Bromley, interim chief executive of the University Alliance, agreed that there was a need for more flexibility in the funding system, but added that she would “also like to see technical and professional higher education programmes more closely linked to defined occupational routes”.