Universities and colleges ‘must back single tertiary system’

College sector leader urges universities to realise that without unified tertiary model ‘we are not going to win any more money’

November 16, 2023

Universities have been urged to join with colleges to make the case to government for a single tertiary system in England or “we are not going to win any more money”, at an event where a range of voices backed a reformed single model.

Sir Philip Augar, who chaired the government-commissioned review of post-18 education, chaired an event titled “Towards a Full Tertiary Funding System”, hosted by right-wing thinktank Policy Exchange in partnership with Durham University.

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said there was an economic case for moving to such a system, because the status quo was “not delivering the skills the economy needs”.

There was also “massive unfairness” in the current system, which meant that when comparing a 19-year-old with a “good level 3 [A level and equivalents] education” entering university and a 19-year-old without level 3 qualifications entering further education, the former would receive income-contingent loan funding of up to £50,000 while the latter would receive “hardly any investment at all” and “no investment in [their] maintenance support”.

He went on: “We know that there are lots of universities struggling financially. Colleges have been struggling financially for years, but universities are starting to catch up – that’s not a good thing…I think that’s terrible.

“But what we’ve got to do is come together to make the case to government for a whole tertiary approach to this system that delivers for the government’s priorities, otherwise we are not going to win any more money.”

Mr Hughes called for a “tertiary system, a tertiary strategy, a tertiary regulator, a tertiary funding system” in England.

“It’s great to see Wales already on that path,” he added.

Sir Philip told the event that having “two distinct systems with separate funding and incentives” meant “these incentives bake in institutional prejudices in favour of recruiting students into higher education and make running an FE college a labour of love”.

Shaid Mahmood, pro vice-chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion at Durham, said the education system was currently “hardwired to compete with itself rather than collaborate”.

While universities and colleges needed to join together to make the case to government for greater synergy between further and higher education, they could also “get on with it” by building their own partnerships at regional level, he added.

Other speakers at the event included Labour MP Paul Blomfield; Sandra McNally, director of the University of Surrey’s Centre for Vocational Education Research; and Iain Mansfield, director of research and head of education at Policy Exchange, a former adviser on education in the Conservative government.

Mr Mansfield said it was “very clear we don’t have a level playing field” between further and higher education, noting there were student number caps on college courses while “we have uncapped university courses”.

He rejected the often-used phrase about creating “parity of esteem” between further and higher education. Paraphrasing something he said he had previously been told by Sir Philip, Mr Mansfield added: “If you get the funding system and incentives right, then the rest will follow. That’s what we should be focusing on – and not talking about esteem.”

Mr Mansfield continued: “If we can keep coherence of funding, coherence of student support and coherence of regulation together, and work towards that over the next years...ideally across any potential changes of government and keep that in mind, we would have a better system that worked for students and worked for the economy overall.”


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