The Government's strategy for growth in vocational education will be blown apart if GCSE results improve as predicted, according to a key forecast by a further education think-tank.
FE colleges will be forced to make drastic reductions in their vocational provision as students focus instead on academic courses, the Learning and Skills Research Centre (LSRC) warns.
A growth in vocational training is a major part of the Government's Skills Strategy White Paper, published in July. It planned for substantial growth in vocational qualifications at all levels, from level 1, which is the equivalent of a lower-grade GCSE, to the degree-equivalent level 4. But the LSRC report says that if more students achieve five good GCSEs, they will be more likely to pursue academic rather than vocational qualifications.
There will then be reduced demand in the learning and skills sector and a move away from vocational and work-based options. A reduced demand for lower level courses will also result.
Chris Grayling, the shadow minister for further and higher education, said:
"It shows a lack of joined-up thinking, and is another example of the Government setting contradictory targets.
"There are huge conflicts between the desire to develop vocational skills, where we have big shortages as a nation, and the push to get more young people into higher education.
"The Government is encouraging people into degree courses and building up debt when the job market is not there to enable them to pay off that debt.
But it should be encouraging more practical job-related training, which should be carried out in FE colleges."
The LSRC report, called Prospects for Growth in Further Education, looked at a "base-case" projection that assumes factors will remain the same and a "policy-on" projection to include an improvement in GCSE scores based on forecasts by the Department for Education and Skills.
Under the policy-on projection, it said: "There could be a greater demand from learners, and thus greater pressure on providers, to offer academic rather than vocational routes into higher education. Greater desire for learning at level 3 (A-level equivalent) could begin to change the profile and balance of provision in the learning and skills sector."
Dierdre Maclead, one of the authors of the report, said: "We are not saying the Government has got it wrong, but perhaps we can use the information to develop the skills strategy for adults and young people. If there is a greater desire for academic levels 3 and 4, that will have an impact on FE."
Ms Maclead added that government targets of 37,000 students taking foundation degrees would be hard to meet.
"We might see less of a desire for foundation degrees," she said.
The report was produced for the Learning and Skills Development Agency and funded by the Learning and Skills Council. It said the effect of improved GCSE scores would initially lead to an increase in participation in the learning and skills sector of 4,000 learners by 2005. But from 2009, total participation falls and by 2012 there will be 14,000 fewer learners.
Mick Fletcher, who managed the report project for the LSDA, said the policy-on projection did not take into account other factors, such as the reform of the 14 to 19 curriculum, which could influence the outcomes. He said: "FE colleges might need to put more effort into links with schools to strengthen the vocational route."