On Monday 20 June, the Policy Exchange think tank published “Vocational Value: The Role of Further Education Colleges in Higher Education”.

Though this appeared a week before “Students at the Heart of the System”,  from the high level Conservative patronage and endorsements proudly displayed on its website, Policy Exchange must have had a good idea of contents of the Government’s Higher Education White Paper.

Policy Exchange is well connected and never knowingly under researched. It should be taken seriously since the essence of many of its ideas get delivered.  So careful reading of Policy Exchange content is needed.

“Vocational Value” has one key paragraph on page 11, which probably says it all:

“The Coalition government’ s recent  ‘Skills Strategy ’…..   arguing  that  “we  are  currently  weak  in  the  vital  intermediate technical skills that are increasingly important as jobs become more highly skilled and  technological  change  accelerates.”

Since SEMTA, the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Technology reckons that one in four firms have skills gaps, page 11 continues:

“These are industries  historically  well  served  by  higher  level  technical  education  –  often delivered  by  colleges.  Higher  education  in  further  education  represents  an important means of filling today’ s gap”

Much of “Vocational Value” seems to suggest that filling this gap should be future Higher Education role for Further Education Collages.

A main recommendation is expansion of so called “short cycle” HE in Further Education Colleges. 80% of HE provision in FE Colleges is short cycle – half of which is Foundation Degrees and Higher Nationals.  In other words, Policy Exchange wants Colleges to do more of what they do now.

“Vocational Value” also makes a specific recommendation that Non Prescribed HE Qualifications might be supported through Student Loans. FE Colleges deliver a wide range of NPHE qualifications from Edexcel, City and Guilds, Association of Accounting Technicians, Chartered Institute of Marketing and Institute of Legal Executives which include programmes in teaching, management, accountancy, marketing and other specialist subjects as well as Level 4/5 NVQs.

The Skills Funding Agency has the power to fund these, but this is not required.  So this suggestion might even mean moving NPHEs from one funding body to another – from SFA to HEFCE and student loans.

Even if all this took place, the Mixed Economy Group, which represents larger HE delivery FE Colleges, in its “Strategy Options” paper shows that Non Prescribed HE may represent only 10% of FE Colleges’ HE offer.

But in the White Paper’s new environment, surely FE Colleges can do more than providing more short cycle courses and more through loans for NPHE courses?

A More Complex Picture

The HE in FE picture is more complex than this. Policy Exchange is right in confirming that since the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, Universities, including former Polytechnics, have seen more Higher Education expansion and publicity than FE Colleges.  It is significant that Lord Browne’s Report hardly mentioned Further Education.

HEFCE’s own figures show:

  • In 2007-08 113,000 students based on full person equivalents (FPEs) undertook HEFCE  funded HE programmes in FE Colleges
  • 63% of students studied foundation degrees and sub-degree programmes like HNC and  HNDs  
  • While 48 % of students were part-time, a majority of students doing first degrees and Foundation Degrees were full-time
  • The number of students at FE Colleges enrolled on HE courses varies considerably – 104 colleges had less than 200 students based on FPE (full person equivalent), and 26 had more than 1,000 based on FPE out of a total of 271.
  • Half of this provision (based on FPE) is funded indirectly through an HEI.


The Mixed Economy Group of FE Colleges Strategic Options paper puts this another way:

“The most recent validated data for 2007/2008 reports that 112,595 students were studying on HEFCE recognised HE programmes, of which 13,445 were on non-HEFCE funded and 99,145 on HEFCE funded programmes at 271 FECs and Sixth Form Colleges.

“In 2009-10, HEFCE funds 130 HEIs and directly funds 125 colleges.  The majority of these colleges also receive funding indirectly through one or more HEIs.  The provisional funding allocations for 2010-1116  indicate 123 colleges will be directly funded by HEFCE”.  

Though “Vocational Value” says that only one in 12 HE students is at an FE College, each of the 39 Mixed Economy Group of FE Colleges have more than 500 HE Students. Many have more than 1000. Some have more than 5000 full and part time HE students. Some larger FE providers of HE receive teaching budgets larger than some universities.

And much of this delivery takes place despite Colleges’ HE income being top sliced twice.  The Mixed Economy Group shows that many Colleges receive only 70-80% of HE funding income. After contribution to College Core Costs, this often funds only 65% to 70% of actual HE delivery costs.

The new White Paper Environment

Despite this, many FE Colleges have the ability to expand significantly their HE provision. In anticipation of the new hinterland projected in the June 28 White Paper, The Manchester College has set its 2012-2013 standard fee at £5400. Newcastle College has set £5800 and New College Durham £6000. Newcastle and Durham have just been given Foundation Degree Awarding Powers.

This is not a marketing piece for the Association of Colleges. There is enough research and survey information which shows that many students prefer to study HE at a local FE College because:

–        it is local so that students remain close to family and work

–        it offers an environment with familiar ways of teaching and delivery

–        it offers sympathetic support for adult learners, with lower student to staff ratios

–        it offers higher class contact hours, often up to 18 hours a week

In the new environment in the Government’s White Paper, where HE deliverers will be required to spell out more of this in detail, there is surely a more complex FE delivery platform and wider FE College role in HE than projected by Policy Exchange?

HE students in FE are more likely to be over 25, to study part-time, to study nearer home, and to come from areas with low rates of HE participation. HE delivery in FE makes an important contribution to widening participation in HE.

As degrees delivered by FE Colleges expand in range and number, many will be different rather than competitive with those from Universities. Many will have a tighter employer and knowledge transfer focus and will score highly for employability outcomes.

The Mixed Economy Group’s Strategy Paper shows 66 Colleges and 36 partnerships. HESA figures show many universities with more than 10 external FE College delivery partners. The University of Sunderland has 20 delivery partners, Canterbury Christ Church has 20 and University of Central Lancashire more than 20. The Universities of Huddersfield and Greenwich each have more than 30. All these involve different patterns of delivery, including whole course delivery.

Most of these universities in partnership with FE Colleges are post 1992 modern university Million Plus members. In partnership with FE Colleges they have already made significant strides in opening access and contribute to increased social mobility.

The post 1992 modern universities have more than a third of non white UK domiciled students and  nearly a quarter of all mature students. Many post 1992 University Access Agreements show intakes of more than 90% from state schools, more than 25% from low participation neighbourhoods and nearly 50% of students from NS SEC 4-7, the lowest social group.

Detailed analysis of Educational Maintenance Allowances, various FE College access, hardship and bursaries shows that their FE College HE partners mirror these enrolment profiles.  HE Access Agreements for FE Colleges show similar figures for low participation and low income neighbourhoods.

HE Potential in FE Colleges

Policy Exchange urges Ministers to promote expansion of cheaper, vocational courses by creating a “level playing field” for Further Education Colleges.

But, as shown above, the territory now opening up is more complicated than that, with much wider FE potential to expand in a wider variety of ways. A more uplifting horizon lies ahead for HE delivery in FE Colleges than expanding short cycle courses or allowing those on currently Non Prescribed HE Courses to access Student Loans.