Higher education colleges could be the key to achieving the government's 50 per cent participation target but they are being hindered by restrictive funding models, principals will be told next week.
The incoming chair of the Standing Conference of Principals is to outline a policy statement warning against the trend towards large institutional groupings - so-called multiversities - that risk artificially inhibiting the sector by pushing everyone towards a common agenda.
John Cater, principal of Edge Hill College in Ormskirk, will call for a new system of "funding by business plan", which would enable higher education colleges to respond individually to the government's targets and to retain their diversity.
Dr Cater said: "We know that many non-traditional students find the environment of a smaller institution in their own locality more attractive.
"And as a result, Scop institutions are managing to increase their applications even though they don't have the status or the esteem of universities. The market is clearly telling us something."
But in order to further develop and to meet targets, Dr Cater will tell next week's annual Scop conference that colleges need a new policy framework that recognises diversity in the higher education sector and that streamlines the plethora of initiative funding.
The "third-leg" allocations could then be made on the basis of institutions' own targets and business plans, he said.
Dr Cater will draw a parallel with the retail sector. He will tell principals that many shoppers have abandoned the multiversity department store in recent years in favour of specialist shops, which has resulted in a significant shift in consumer spending patterns.
"We need to invest in a variety of models and should be wary of seeing any one model as a universal panacea for problems or challenges in the sector," he said.
Diversity should not be managed and it was inappropriate to set any artificial limits or constraints, he said.
"We need a system that continues to build on our diverse strengths rather than seeking to rationalise provision. It is vitally important for the future health of the sector that institutions continue to develop and grow as autonomous organisations and are not subject to unnecessary and arbitrary restrictions on their roles and missions."
Instead of increasing strategic alliances and mergers, colleges ought to focus on different types of collaborative ventures based on discipline groupings, Dr Cater said.