From education to employment

What should the college HE contribution be?

Further education (FE) colleges have long been providers of higher education in England. Today, they are seen by government as a cost-effective way of providing higher education and, along with private providers, as a necessary source of competition in a student-led funding regime and market for undergraduate places. This is one of at least four roles that governments have sought for colleges over the last quarter century.

A long perspective is a rare thing in contemporary policymaking. So, here is a tutorial to recover the policy memory and inject some large questions into present-day debates. What the college contribution should be is a question being asked or re-asked in other countries, although a policy interest in the international evidence is not conspicuous. Anyhow, what about the English and their attempts to decide on these matters?

Relieved of responsibility

Before the dramatic expansion that brought mass levels of participation, the policy imperative had been to concentrate higher education in the strongest institutions: the then polytechnics and, on the other side of the binary line, the universities. Legislation in 1988 and 1992 finally allocated institutions of higher education to one sector and further education colleges to another. Any higher level work remaining in the colleges was officially declared residual and, if anything, expected to fall away.

That colleges should not normally do higher education was the first of the positions assumed for further education establishments in the modern era. This broke with the idea of a seamless pattern of further and higher education overseen by local government. Relieved of responsibility for higher education, the primary job of colleges was the education of adults and young people at the lower levels. Once established in their own sector, the college interest in higher education would be a qualifying one (equipping students with entry qualifications), not a providing one.

A special mission

While a two-sector structure of higher education and further education has remained, the policy of keeping colleges away from higher education was soon abandoned. When separated from the polytechnics, most colleges managed to keep their courses of higher education. Generally, these represented small amounts of provision, leading to short-cycle vocational qualifications and catering for part-time students living or working locally. Even so, the college share of higher education was not inconsiderable, at between ten and fifteen per cent of the undergraduate population.

In a reversal of policy, the newly elected Blair government accepted a key recommendation of the Dearing inquiry into higher education. This proposed a special mission for further education colleges at levels below the bachelor degree, with these institutions leading the renewed expansion in undergraduate education which the introduction of tuition fees would help to fund.

The Dearing recommendation insisted on direct funding for colleges to perform this role. Not for Dearing the sinfulness of franchising, the way that a number of colleges had increased their teaching of higher education courses during the expansion years. Over time, colleges would become the primary providers of sub-bachelor qualifications, similar to in Scotland.

Semi-compulsory collaboration

Although adopted, the Dearing recommendation did not survive for long. Concerned about the weak demand for existing sub-degree qualifications, the government invented a new short-cycle qualification, the work-focused Foundation Degree. In partnership with universities and employers, colleges were to be centrally involved in its ‘delivery’. Contrary to Dearing, the preferred model for its teaching by colleges was through indirect funding arrangements with partner universities.

In addition to funded student numbers, collaboration brought the award of a university qualification, the responsibility for quality assurance and the guarantee of progression to a bachelor degree. However, such arrangements occasioned insecurity and dependency, whether in the setting of fees or the planning of programmes. This third role for colleges in higher education has come under severe pressure in recent years, with some universities withdrawing their numbers in response to reductions in their public funding.

The next experiment

The post-Dearing settlement has since been replaced by the post-Browne experiment and, with it, another new context and role for further education institutions. Fee differentiation and a de-regulation of awarding powers will, it is ventured, afford colleges more scope to demonstrate their claims to responsiveness, distinctiveness and affordability. At the same time, established sub-degree qualifications like the Higher National Diploma (HND) and Certificate (HNC) are back in the fold, as staged awards and routes to the bachelor degree.

In this fourth phase, the college contribution is to be shaped by the demands of competition, with fewer barriers for institutions that do not currently receive direct funding and with non-teaching organisations able to offer external degrees. Rather than increase the number of institutions with degree-awarding powers, as in the opportunity for colleges to award the Foundation Degree, the interests of students and the system would be better served, it is argued, by colleges teaching towards internationally respected external degrees.

An open system of universities and colleges

With four competing versions on show over twenty-five years, why has it been so difficult to achieve consistency, coherence or consensus on the college contribution to higher education? One major explanation is structural. In a two-sector system, there has been no central authority – a tertiary intelligence – to offer overarching leadership and coordination. Instead, responsibility for higher education in the further education sector has been passed to a body – the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) – whose primary constituency is the higher education sector and its member institutions. As an internal HEFCE review came close to saying, the college role in higher education has for long been a source of policy weakness, if not failure.

Nor would a shift of responsibility to the other sector be likely to improve matters, although the experience of Scotland is again instructive where higher education below the bachelor degree is a near-monopoly for the colleges and where the universities have not exercised a direct influence on its shape and development. Scotland now has a single funding council for further and higher education but this is still some distance from the tertiary commission and lifelong learning system that some had imagined for that country.

On one reading, the market-led reforms intended for English higher education invite their extension into the rest of the tertiary system. Whatever their reach, the rationale and architecture of a two-sector system will continue to be challenged. The asymmetries of power and influence inscribed in these structures are one set of reasons for their survival, with higher education able to argue persuasively for separate or special treatment and further education ever-conscious of its subordinate status and confused identity. The time has come perhaps to dump the language of further education and, instead, invest in the concept of an open system of universities and colleges.

By Gareth Parry, Professor of Education and Director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of Sheffield

Blue Skies: New thinking about the future of higher education, published by Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning today, contains the visions of 40 education experts on the future of HE

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