THES reporters survey today's higher education sector to spot tomorrow's growing points.
IT IS sometimes referred to as higher education's second sector. But it may be first in line for any future growth in student numbers. The colleges and institutes of higher education, along with further education colleges running higher education courses, are being eyed by Sir Ron Dearing as prime territory for potential expansion.
Sir Ron's higher education inquiry will look at the cost and educational benefits of boosting the number and range of courses which can be easily accessed by the local community.
Members of the inquiry committee will want to know whether the colleges can offer sufficient breadth and quality of provision to justify extra investment in them.
The colleges themselves have been arguing for decades that they should be ranked alongside the universities in the quality of their teaching. Their number has been shrinking as a result of funding cuts and mergers; some colleges being promoted to university status.
Twenty-five years ago there were 152 colleges of education in England and Wales. Now there are just 55 institutions represented by the Standing Conference of Principals.
The colleges were forced to diversify following a squeeze in the 1970s on teacher training, which now accounts for around a third of their total provision. Humanities, art and design, social sciences, social work, nursing, and management and business courses are now taken by college students who make up around one-sixteenth of the total student population.
The surviving colleges have grown rapidly over the past six years, and many are still seeing through the tail-end of this expansion despite the clampdown on extra funded student numbers.
There has been even greater growth in the number of students attending higher education courses in so-called "mixed economy" colleges, which receive most of their funding from the further education funding councils but are also funded for higher education. Over the same period, the number of students on these courses grew by nearly 40 per cent.