The fortunes of the higher and further education sectors have, in recent years, seemed to be heading in opposite directions.
A 2015 report by the Policy Exchange thinktank pointed out that, since 2009-10, overall university income had increased by 26 per cent, while the adult skills budget had been cut by 24 per cent.
In the subsequent two years, however, Tes has uncovered a surprising shift in the behaviour of universities: higher education institutions are expanding into FE. In just two years, university income from apprenticeships, traineeships and the adult education budget has more than doubled, from £12.6 million in 2014-15 to £31.9 million in 2016-17. In the same period, the number of universities in receipt of funding for FE provision has almost trebled, from 21 to 62.
With more and more universities looking to capitalise on the introduction of the apprenticeship levy by offering work-based qualifications at degree level, the trend is set to continue. Just last month, Middlesex University launched its new five-year strategy, promoting itself as the “university for skills” and pledging to develop new programmes, including apprenticeships.
And the battle is set to get fiercer: the government last week announced it was launching a review of higher-level technical education – the “post-secondary, sub-tertiary qualifications” at level 4 and 5, which reside in the contested space between HE and FE. Universities, it seems, are switching focus from the lecture hall to the workshop.
This shift can partly be attributed to the growth in higher and degree apprenticeships. According to the latest provisional government data, the number of higher-level apprenticeships has increased tenfold over the past six years – from 5,700 in 2011-12 to 61,000 in 2016-17.
But Tes understands that universities are also beginning to offer more level 3 provision, and so-called “year-zero” courses – preparation programmes for degrees.
Kirsti Lord, deputy chief executive of members’ services for the Association of Colleges, said that universities are increasingly moving into markets that had traditionally been held by further education providers “with very mixed results”.
While she added that there are some “excellent collaborations between higher education institutions and colleges”, these are “becoming scarce as competition increases”.
“Too many young people and adults are being recruited on to higher education courses who simply cannot cope and drop out carrying a high level of debt with no qualification,” she said.
This is an edited version of a story that originally appeared on Tes.