Students who have taken higher education courses in FE colleges earn less money and are less likely to progress to further study than those who attended universities, according to new research.
A new paper by Kevin Orr, a reader in work and learning at the University of Huddersfield, argues that although widening participation in HE through FE provision has been a success, it has not led to expected improvements in social mobility.
"HE in FE cannot systematically lessen social or economic disadvantages," it says. "FE colleges.can only reflect and not transform unequal societies."
The issue of HE provision within FE institutions has increased in prominence since the Conservative government came to power in May. Last month, it emerged that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) had suspended the process of applying for degree-awarding powers.
The moratorium on new applications will last until Bis has carried out a review of the system to "protect the reputation and integrity" of the UK HE sector. This could take until early next year, with the Association of Colleges (AoC) describing the move as a "blow" for colleges with HE aspirations.
The AoC has also called on Bis to create a Technical Education Accreditation Council to accredit foundation-level degrees in partnership with employers.
But the new report raises fundamental questions about the benefits of HE provision within FE institutions. The proportion of HE students in England studying at FE colleges, it says, has remained stable at about 10 per cent for more than a decade.
Although the types of HE courses on offer in colleges have recently altered significantly and there are wide regional differences, the majority are related directly to vocational or professional fields, the report says.
In recent years, HE in FE has been linked with policies to widen participation and boost upward social mobility - in 2011, for example, the Policy Exchange thinktank said it could be an "engine for widening participation and social mobility".
But Dr Orr's report - entitled Widening Participation or Social Mobility? The case of college-based higher education in England - argues that there is no evidence that this has been achieved.
"The statistical data on destinations examined for this paper suggest a mixed experience but one where full-time HE-in-FE students generally do worse than students in other higher education institutions as judged by subsequent income or further study," it says.
Data from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) for 2010-11 shows that the proportion of graduates from FE colleges employed full-time in professional occupations was 8 per cent, compared with 23 per cent of graduates from higher education institutions. Meanwhile, mean starting salaries for HE-in-FE graduates were 16 per cent lower than those from HE institutions. In fact, 49 per cent of graduates from HE institutions were earning more than pound;20,000, compared with 28 per cent of those who had studied at colleges. However, Hefce said it was likely that some of the difference was a result of the subjects studied by HE-in-FE students.
Dr Orr told TES: "The FE sector is always asked to do a great deal with few resources, but asking it to fundamentally improve the inequality of British society is to ask too much. My argument is if we just judge HE in FE by social mobility, we are missing out the most important thing, which is curriculum."
Dr Orr said that colleges should focus less on "getting more students through the door" and more on the content of their HE courses.
"It is important that those from less privileged backgrounds have access to what students at more elite universities have: the most recent research and knowledge so they can be introduced to concepts such as abstraction and start thinking beyond the unthinkable."
But John Widdowson, principal of New College Durham - one of only four FE colleges in England with foundation degree-awarding powers - said Dr Orr had overlooked other measures of social mobility.
"A lot of people coming into HE in FE are the first to have that level of education in their family," said Mr Widdowson, who chairs the Mixed Economy Group of 41 colleges offering HE courses.
"That has a knock-on effect on friends, family and the places in which they work. They might not get paid a lot of money [compared with other HE students] but they will fulfil a valuable function and have a status they would not have had before."
Nick Davy, HE policy manager at the AoC, said that although the research made some interesting points, the picture was more complex than it appeared.
"The reality is that a significant chunk of HE provision in FE colleges is in towns with low-wage economies," he said.
"It's inevitable that those graduates who choose to study locally, who often come from more disadvantaged backgrounds, and who stay in the area after graduation, are going to earn less than those who go to universities.
"We have got to look very seriously at our labour market, because we are not creating enough high-paid, high-skilled jobs in those areas."
`My HND set me up for university'
Walsall College, which was named Provider of the Year in the 2014 TES FE Awards, offers a range of HE provision with a success rate of 97 per cent and a commendation from the Quality Assurance Agency. The college says its HE courses are affordable and prepare people for work or further study.
Charlene Pottinger, pictured, took an HND in computing at Walsall, which led straight to the second year of a degree in forensic computing and computing science at Staffordshire University.
The 23-year-old, who now works for Xerox IT Services as a database administrator, says: "I found my HND set me up for university.
"I was used to the high workload so I was able to automatically adapt, where other people on my course struggled."