The future of post-16 learning lies in a hybrid mix of further and higher education, argues David Melville
Universities and further education colleges have much in common. Their agendas include widening participation, employability and engaging with business. Many also share common origins in their local authority technical-college heritage. But, it might be argued, that is where the similarity ends.
The priorities of further education lie in basic skills, vocational training and workforce development to level 3, sixth-form studies and adult education. Higher education's priorities are in teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, research and knowledge transfer.
This simple delineation is helpful in showing that further and higher education institutions operate along a generally common set of principles but are largely complementary in the detail of what they do. But it is unhelpful in not describing the existing or the developing complexity of these institutions.
More than 200,000 students study for higher education qualifications in further education colleges - about 12 per cent of all higher education students. These numbers amount to more than the whole of the university sector at the time of the Robbins report in the 1960s. Now, almost all of the 200 or so general further education colleges have some higher education provision. For specialist further education institutions in areas such as agriculture and art and design, about 30 per cent of provision, on average, is higher education.
On the other side of the coin, the amount of further education in universities is also growing in volume, although the picture is complex. While the "historic" provision of further education in post-1992 universities is decreasing, a number of higher education institutions have increased further education provision or acquired it through mergers with further education colleges or with specialist higher education institutions with further education provision.
Potentially, further and higher education together can achieve much more in ensuring progression and in developing targeted vocational provision. If a university can take nursing students aged 16 and get them to degree level within four years, why can it not do the same for engineering students? The reason for its success in nursing is that the curriculum is relatively narrow, the training and education very much vocational and work related and motivation high. Perhaps this is the key to retaining many more of our young people in vocational areas in the future.
In ten years, there will undoubtedly be many more merged and hybrid institutions. For many learners, especially those returning to study after a period of work, whether they are at college or university is immaterial. Their focus is increasingly on the content and quality of their course rather than the name or the label of the organisation.
But I do not believe that mergers are the panacea for increasing numbers and widening participation. Much more significant are strategic alliances and, in particular, the "multiversity" concept being developed in a number of places around the UK.
The idea is straightforward: a cooperating alliance of further and higher education institutions, and, where possible, schools, based on a simple set of principles. These principles are parity of esteem, and institutions doing what they are individually best at doing, while working in a particular geographical area with a focus on a particular task, in which widening and increasing higher education participation are likely to be key.
The 2010 landscape for higher and further education will almost certainly be dominated by such strategic and intimate alliances. All universities will need them.
David Melville is vice-chancellor of the University of Kent. The conference "Cooperation and Collaboration: Partnerships for Broader Education Provision", supported by The THES , will take place on December 5 at the Hilton London Metropole.