Further education colleges have been warned by higher education funding chiefs to be careful not to recruit underqualified or poorly prepared higher education students in their efforts to widen participation.
Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, told delegates at the Association of Colleges annual conference last week that FE colleges had a "pivotal" role to play in helping to achieve the government's higher education expansion plans.
But he said colleges must bear in mind that it was as important to keep student dropout rates down as it was to boost numbers.
He told the conference: "We are doing nobody any favours if we bring people into higher education unless they have a reasonable prospect of success."
Colleges should be working closely with schools and universities to help identify which students are more likely to need support in higher education and to make sure arrangements are in place to provide that support, he said.
There is an "inherent risk" to quality, standards and the student experience, where higher education is provided in "small pockets, isolated from the wider higher education community", he said.
Almost 90 colleges that are directly funded by Hefce have 100 or fewer full-time equivalent higher education students, and half of these have fewer than 40 higher education places, he said.
Collaboration and mergers between universities and colleges might be appropriate in some areas of the country and inappropriate in others. The American model, where formal ties between universities and colleges are common, "illustrates the sort of thing that might work in appropriate cases", he added.
Sir Howard told Hefce's annual meeting last Friday that reaching the government's 50 per cent participation target would require a campaign to increase the supply of potential students.
* Recruitment on to higher level vocational courses will be the key to achieving the government's widening participation goals, said Leslie Wagner, vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University and new chairman of the University Vocational Awards Council.
While the pool of unrecruited A-level holders aiming for traditional degrees has all but dried up, vocational qualification holders hoping to progress up to higher-level programmes are "the great untapped area" for future growth, Professor Wagner said.
The emergence of new vocational routes, including the graduate apprenticeship and foundation degrees, has given these students something to aim for in higher education, he added.
Professor Wagner said: "There are around 5 million people with level-three vocational qualifications that do not have a level-four qualification, compared with very few with A levels who have not got a degree. Many of these people are in the 20 to 30 age range that the government wants us to recruit to hit its target. We need to be more provocative in getting that message across."
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