Colleges, in lots of ways, have to be all things to all people. The first time I stepped into a college, Aberdeen College nearly a decade ago, it was the thing that struck me the most – the diversity of the student cohort and the services and courses provided.
Colleges do it all – from GCSE and A-level courses to apprenticeships, provision for students with additional support needs, apprenticeship training and higher education. And while it is one of the sector’s greatest strengths, allowing them to provide all kinds of learning locally, as well as progression through from entry level all the way to a degree, it is also where, all too often, it falls between stools. Policies are made that affect colleges, but they are no more than an after thought in the rules and regulations at the heart of that policy.
Today, we highlight a staggering example of this. Few would argue that there was no need for regulation and quality control in the higher education sector, and the Office for Students with its register aims to address this. Institutions that are not registered cannot access certain types of grant funding or charge their students above the basic fee amount. Missing out also affects the support students can receive. Fail to make the cut, and offering HE could really be rather difficult.
Background: Colleges left in limbo by Office for Students
Need to know: College rejected from HE register after injunction bid
But that is exactly what four further education colleges have already experienced. The impact of this is significant. Lancaster and Morcambe College has already announced that following its rejection, it will cut its “financially unsustainable, small, traditional HE offer”. And Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes has been clear his is not the only institution questioning whether it has a future in the higher education field.
“Many colleges are now asking themselves whether they can afford to stay delivering HE and whether they are able to take on the burden of being registered by the OfS. The risk of that is that opportunities for adults across the country, in particular cold spots like Brighton, the Midlands and northern industrial towns, will disappear and the opportunities for the sorts of people that the government is interested in just won’t be there.”
This, to me, is the very heart of the issue. College provision very often – although by no means always – is higher education made available to students who would commonly never consider it – whether because of their financial background, circumstances, education experience, or even the fact that university just isn’t for them.
Cut off that road into HE, and many of them will, very simply, miss out. Fees are one issue here, of course – colleges told Tes FE reporter Kate Parker that the difference between attending college and university for higher education courses can be £12,000 over the course of a degree. It can also be about geography – it is well known that students attending colleges have lower mobility than those at universities – as well as dozens of other factors.
And it is the reasons for those four colleges being rejected that are particularly jarring here. All were rejected under what is known as clause B3, which considers continuation rate data – the proportion of HE students progressing from the first and second year of study.
It is easy to see that a college with a few dozen students would much more easily fall foul of such a benchmark than a university with hundreds. These are the sort of rules created without any consideration for colleges – the kinds of institutions they are and the students they serve.
It is not so much that people have set out to disadvantage colleges – they simply haven’t considered them. And by doing so, they have created a playing field that is very far from even. And higher education is only one example of this – another has long been the visa policy surrounding the recruitment of international students.
Skills and training have become favourite buzzwords in government rhetoric recently. But if any of that is to seriously translate into a stronger FE sector that can meet the country’s needs, colleges need to be listened to and no longer just be an after thought.