There are few things that excite wonks more than excellent and well-timed policy research. Last week, BIS published its report Understanding Higher Education in Further Education Colleges, written by a dream team of policy researchers – Gareth Parry from Sheffield and Claire Callender, Peter Scott and Paul Temple from IoE. HE in FE is one of the least-understood parts of UK tertiary education, and despite pockets of work in other quarters; no one else has attempted such an exhaustive study of this issue. Although it will surely have its critics, this new report is without a doubt the seminal work about HE in FE right now and absolutely essential reading no matter which side of the HE/FE divide you fall.
One of the fears about the core and margin student number control policy is that it could encourage some universities to break their links with colleges and withdraw existing HE in FE provision. The rationale being that those colleges that were previously partners, are now competitors for a pot of student numbers and so collaborating no longer makes sense.
We don’t know for sure whether core and margin will have this effect, it will take some time for the policy to play out before we can really asses its effects. However, what is striking about Understanding Higher Education in Further Education Colleges is the extent to which it shows that HE in FE compliments rather than competes with ‘traditional’ HE delivered in universities. If there were a wholesale removal by universities of their provision in FE, we would see just how market forces in education can adversely affect decision-making. From the perspective of competition, withdrawal might make sense, but when you take time to really look at what is going on, it is clear that HE in FE is providing an important and complimentary form of provision which higher education would be poorer without.
Of course the landscape is very complicated, and not all of HE in FE is the result of direct collaboration between colleges and universities. What the report does well is navigate the maze to show some of the policy and funding drivers that have given us the system we have today.
However, both sectors face an uncertain future political, policy and funding environment which provides both risks and opportunities. Core and margin might create market pressures that pull in one direction. But as the report notes, FECs are much more adept at operating in an unstable environment and they can be more dynamic and flexible in the way they structure their provision.
The problem is that HE in FE in every case will need to be validated or accredited by an external body which severely hampers FEC’s ability to move quickly to respond to a changeable environment, as well as the needs of their local HE students which are often not well understood by universities. Degree awarding powers are also not a silver bullet to this problem, as DAPs come with significant costs and burdens themselves. There is a worry that HE in FE could fall through the cracks of the policy and funding environments of both the higher and further education sectors which are individually disjointed and confused. Combining the two is to fall into a rabbit hole which Understanding Higher Education in Further Education Colleges bravely attempts to map and explain.
The report gives many reasons for why HE in FE provision is important and distinctive which itself is a good case for why it must not be allowed to fall into any of those cracks. There are too many to assess here in full, but one that stands out is widening participation. The research finds that contrary to previously-held beliefs, HE in FE’s strength in WP is not merely its ability to attract those from lower socio-economic groups. HE in FE’s offer is distinctive for being considered more ‘local’ by students – particularly by those who are less mobile. One of the strengths of further education colleges is their ability to reach people that universities, with all their well-documented barriers, simply do not (even those institutions best at widening participation). Therefore HE in FE provision opens up a world of higher qualifications to people that would otherwise miss out. The environment that colleges provide can also make more sense for those that might see the traditional university environment as alien, and not suited to their lives or preferred method of study. When you consider the vocational emphasis of much HE in FE provision and the fact that many on its courses are in full-time employment, we begin to see why HE in FE matters.
The future of HE in FE depends much on future government policy choices. So far, an incremental and stattergun approach has given us what we have today. However if student places were to be further reduced in HEIs or if there were radical changes to regulation (e.g. in university title, status and quality assurance) then the status of HE in FE could see a more dramatic shift. The report hypothesizes that it could even come to resemble a sector in its own right such as US-style community colleges. However that remains a long way off and in the mean time, policy and funding levers in both HE in FE could be pulled in many different and unpredictable directions.
Understanding Higher Education in Further Education Colleges is a big report with a lot to say about a very complicated area – far more than this blog could adequately summarise. It should offer much food for thought for the HE, FE and HE in FE communities. In an age of declining research budgets, and considering the much-lamented paucity of evidence in the policymaking process, there is something incredibly satisfying about seeing a government department commissioning some of the best minds in education research to do what they do best, about an issue that could very well be ignored. What they choose to do with it remains to be seen.
Download Understanding Higher Education in Further Education Colleges here.