Further education colleges are facing an identity crisis as more students opt for higher education courses in academic subjects rather than lower level vocational qualifications, research reveals.
Growth trends in the run-up to 2012, simulated by the Learning and Skills Research Centre, show that colleges face almost inevitable mission drift as students demand that they offer more high-end courses with a clear academic emphasis in place of traditional further education courses with hands-on training.
The simulation shows that growth over the period will probably be strongest at sub-degree and degree levels, which will jar with the government's aim of improving the nation's vocational skills base. Most further education cash is focused on lower level skills education. The balance will have to shift if the simulations prove right.
On top of this, according to the research, the government's forecast for improving GCSE scores will fuel an increase in the number of young people seeking to do A levels, most of whom go on to higher level academic rather than vocational courses.
Finally, the government's higher education expansion policy, which relies largely on getting more students onto foundation degree courses in further education colleges, provides the perfect vehicle for an explosion of higher education in FE institutions.
A report on the findings, published by the Learning and Skills Development Agency, which advises the government on trends and issues, has been described by politicians as a wake-up call for ministers that further education policies must be flexible enough to cope with unexpected shifts in student demand.
The report, Prospects for Growth in Further Education , says: "Greater desire for learning at level 3 [university entry level] could begin to change the profile and balance of provision in the learning and skills sector. This effect could be compounded by other policy interventions designed to increase participation in higher education in the form of foundation degrees."
The simulation model used in the research is based on Labour Force Survey data and demographic trends.
It shows that 200,000 more students are predicted to join academic level-3 courses over the period, while the number on vocational level 3 programmes is expected to fall by 11,000. Participation in academic level 4 (degree level) programmes is forecast to rise dramatically by some 415,000 students, compared with an increase of just 21,850 at vocational level 4.
Meanwhile, there will be a marked decrease of about 71,400 among students on vocational level 2 courses, while academic level 2 programmes will also lose about 12,000 students.
Shadow education secretary Tim Yeo said the findings raised questions about the government's skills and higher education policies. He said: "There is a danger that some people will be left without the opportunity to gain the sort of skills and qualifications that would get them a good job, or they will be influenced to join a course that is inappropriate."