A headlong rush to merge the higher and further education sectors could undermine colleges' educational distinctiveness and distort the nation's skills profile, it has been claimed.
The Association of Colleges has told the Dearing committee it is concerned that a policy of merger and collaboration, including a single further and higher education funding council, could weaken colleges, particularly the delivery of vocational, non-degree qualifications. Many individual college heads share the same view.
AOCconcerns are underlined by evidence from the Government's Skills Audit last year. While the country is well endowed with graduates, it showed a shortage of people with intermediate, vocational qualifications.
John Brennan, AOC further education development director, said: "Colleges give priority to intermediate and lower-level qualifications and offer a far greater range of opportunity than universities. We are concerned that this distinctiveness might be lost.
"All the evidence suggests that there is a shortfall in the number of people with intermediate skills. This imposes serious limitations for the country and economy. This is where the priority lies."
Mr Brennan said that the AOC was not opposed to local mergers and collaborative agreements between further and higher education institutions, since these are tailored to local conditions and are attentive to student and employer needs. But he reiterated concerns about a "merger blueprint" imposed by government.
Many college principals share AOC's concerns that, by moving into ever closer collaboration with universities, they risk "mission drift". They see this drift as almost inevitable, leading institutions to pursue ever higher academic, or research, status.
Clive Brain, principal of Swindon College and one of the two heads who gave evidence to Dearing as part of the AOC's submission, warned against rushing into merger, particularly of funding councils. There were much more pressing concerns for colleges, he said, such as funding parity and dealing with the Government's decision to stop paying for the demand-led element of funding.