More than a third of students accepted on to higher education courses last year had been educated in further education colleges, according to figures produced by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
Further education colleges accounted for 27 per cent of the students accepted on to higher education courses in 2004 and 34 per cent of those accepted in 2008.
The number of FE students accepted on to higher education courses, including those from sixth-form colleges, rose by 52 per cent from 90,240 in 2004 to 137,503 in 2008. Over the same period, the number of school students accepted, including those from school sixth forms, rose by 46 per cent, from 159,157 to 231,866.
The figures, produced by Ucas for FE Focus, tell one of further education's unsung success stories, namely the growing importance of colleges as a route into, and destination in their own right, for higher education.
With the current focus on skills, particularly the reskilling and upskilling of workers and the unemployed in the economic downturn, FE's role as a major player in higher education deserves restating.
The growth in the number of foundation degree students - up from 34,000 in 2007 to 72,000 in 2008 - has helped boost its higher education footprint. So, too, has the sector's continuing ability to produce students with A- levels and equivalent- level vocational qualifications who go on to higher education.
Added to this is the recent evidence from the National Student Survey that 76 per cent of students studying higher education programmes in FE colleges were satisfied with the quality of their courses, and in some aspects were more satisfied than those studying at university.
In light of FE colleges' growing success, the logical step for some college leaders is to pursue fully fledged honours degrees in vocational studies delivered in colleges. Under proposals from the Association of Colleges, these bachelor degrees in vocational studies could be awarded by a central body, like the old Council for National Academic Awards, rather than validated by partner universities as foundation degrees are currently.
The importance of colleges' role in delivering more higher education courses and students has not escaped the Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills select committee. As part of its students and universities inquiry, it is looking at admissions, including students who come through further education.
Phil Willis, the committee chairman, said: "The further education sector is a big success story as more students are coming into higher education through FE.
But there are two big issues: which universities are FE students going to and what are the outcomes when they get there? In other words, what degrees do they get and how many drop out?"
Mr Willis raises important questions for an FE system which prides itself in offering educational opportunities to those who failed to thrive at school and are more likely than their peers in school sixth forms to come from families with no direct experience of higher education.
"The evidence from the 157 Group of leading colleges is that most FE students are going to non-Russell Group universities.
" I do not decry this, but I want students from further education seeing Oxbridge and the other Russell Group universities as obtainable goals," he said.
"I am also told, anecdotally, that there is, in some cases, a significantly higher drop-out rate of people coming from FE into HE than from school sixth forms. Often it is down to money. One of the key issues is what are central government, the higher education funding councils, colleges and universities doing to make sure this is a recognised issue and that there are strategies to deal with it."
Most college students do progress to local universities rather than Oxford, Cambridge and other universities that select students nationally and internationally, though by no means exclusively so.
But - and Mr Willis is right not to decry it - this entry pattern is due just as often to the positive choices made by college students and by the strong links that colleges have with nearby universities, than it is to any sense that prestigious universities form an exclusive, not-for-the- likes-of-us category.
David Jenkins, director of educational partnerships at Staffordshire University, in Stoke-on-Trent, said that his institution heads a consortium that includes nine FE colleges in Staffordshire and Shropshire. The Staffordshire University Regional Federation offers a range of foundation degrees which can be studied at the partner colleges.
There are currently around 800 foundation degree students registered with Staffordshire, most of whom are studying in partner colleges, Mr Jenkins said. Local people account for about 40 per cent of Staffordshire's student population.
"By definition, we are a widening participation university, so we welcome a broad sweep of students and a very wide range of qualifications," he said.
"Universities like Staffordshire are helping along further education's undoubted success in higher education by looking at a wider pool of ability."
Chichester College has partnerships with several universities, including Chichester, Portsmouth, Brighton and Sussex, which is based in Brighton. About a fifth of the college's students are studying for A-levels and they are guaranteed conditional place offers from the partner universities.
Richard Parker, principal of Chichester College, said: "We do an annual review of student destinations. Local universities are by far and away the most popular destinations, but after that the types of university our students go to are many and varied."
Colleges say that much of their success in getting people into higher education is due to the educational and pastoral support they offer students, some of whom progress from having few, if any, qualifications to a position where they are ready for higher education.
"What a college like mine offers," said Mr Parker, "is a wide curriculum and a huge choice, so that it is possible for our students to mix and match across the vocational and academic spectrum.
"But the biggest thing we offer students is the chance to become independent learners. And the feedback from universities is that the students who have been through FE tend to do better than those who come through school sixth forms because FE students are more independent learners."
Chris Morecroft, principal of Worcester College of Technology, has seen student numbers - both in terms of students studying higher education programmes in college and those going on to university - grow by a quarter in two years. He believes that much of this success can be attributed to a unique selling point colleges have when it comes to delivering higher education, one that sets them apart from most schools.
"I think the advantage colleges like mine have over schools is that 70 to 80 per cent of my tutors have spent considerable time in industry or the public sector, and half of those are graduates," he said.
"They can therefore explain the purpose and uses of higher education in a very real way, talking about how degrees helped them or people they worked with to achieve their goals.
"Many school teachers come out of universities and go straight back into the classroom. And while this doesn't mean that they do not understand the real world, they may lack that range of professional knowledge."
FE students, then, would seem well prepared - even at an advantage - for higher education. So how do these views square with Mr Willis's concern that students from FE may find university more of a struggle than those from a school sixth form? Is it principally a question of funding, whereby poorer college students are more likely to drop out under the financial burden than their middle class peers from sixth forms?
Pat Bacon, principal of St Helens College, Merseyside, thinks not.
"FE's role in getting people into HE is a largely unsung success story. And why are we successful? It is because of the level of student support and care that we provide," she said.
"The challenge for us has been retention. We have done a lot of work to make sure we get the right students on the right course at the right level. I guess we come closest to personalised learning. As a sector, we have invested strongly in these elements and we are seeing the benefits.
"But you have to wonder just how well students are supported when they get to some universities. I would simply make the point that it seems that more could be done."
London's South Bank University recruits heavily from the FE sector and is well versed in the benefits of college-educated students.
Deian Hopkin, the vice-chancellor, said: "Further education colleges are doing some fantastic work in terms of the quality of support they are offering their students. But I suspect this support is not being matched in some higher education institutions. Perhaps this is because teaching is not all that HE lecturers do."
This is not to ignore the effect that funding, or the lack of it, has on students and their decision to stick with or drop out of a course.
As Ms Bacon indicated, retention is not only a problem for universities. But the feeling in further education is that the higher costs of degree- level study, combined with a lack of academic and pastoral support at university, is enough to tip some students over the edge, leading to them quitting.
Professor Hopkin said: "A lot of students coming through from FE will want to study part-time and the support mechanisms for part-time students are not as good as those for full-timers. A lot of universities may focus their efforts on full-time support."
Christine King, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University, said: "The money for universities is for full-time undergraduates, so any flexibility is hard to find. But, given that the demographic is against this, the higher education funding councils and the Learning and Skills Council have to get more flexible."
Preparing students for university and delivering higher education courses directly have been important FE college functions for many years. The evidence now is that they are doing more of both more successfully, and often better than schools and universities.
As Mr Morecroft observed: "General further education colleges get stereotyped as last chance institutions and that is not the case any more."
Opinion, page 6
52% - Rise over four years in the number of FE students accepted on to higher education courses, from 90,240 in 2004 to 137,503 in 2008. Over the same period, the number of school students accepted rose by 46 per cent.