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‘HE and FE should not be rivals’

Further education can play a life-changing role in helping people to gain access to degree study, writes Stephen Howlett, chair of corporation at London South East Colleges

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Further education can play a life-changing role in helping people to gain access to degree study, writes Stephen Howlett, chair of corporation at London South East Colleges

With a new GCSE grading system in place and reformed A levels being sat for the first time, it has been a summer of change for schools and colleges. Add this to the government’s apprenticeships shake-up and plans to overhaul vocational training, and we are looking at a whole new approach to education.

These major reforms are timely in a rapidly changing world. Our increasing reliance on digital technology means that the needs of employers are shifting, with businesses of all sizes facing real challenges to secure an adequately skilled workforce. With increasing automation, unskilled jobs are disappearing so we simply must ensure that our education system can meet the needs of our dynamic economy.

Apprenticeships are top of the list here, giving people the opportunity to gain qualifications – up to degree-equivalent – while earning a wage and getting real on-the-job experience.

I am also hugely supportive of higher education in the traditional sense. University offers people the chance to expand their horizons, raise aspirations and, undoubtedly, have an enjoyable experience. Gaining a degree demonstrates the ability to self-study and self-motivate, as well as developing an in-depth understanding of a particular subject. Degrees are also, quite simply, a minimum requirement for a number of careers.

Yet with rising tuition fees and living costs, university is not as accessible as it once was. Young people are questioning the benefit of racking up thousands of pounds of student debt with no guaranteed job at the end of their studies.

In addition, many older people who didn’t have the chance to go to university are keen to return to study, but need a flexible programme to fit in with existing family and/or work commitments. As educators, we, therefore, need to offer a more accessible route to the much-valued degree – and this is something that FE colleges are doing very well.

‘Providing educational rescue’

Many FE colleges deliver their HE courses in partnership with universities, which will validate the programmes. London South East Colleges, for example, works closely with the University of Greenwich and Canterbury Christ Church University.

The delivery of HE courses in colleges allows more people to gain a degree. At London South East Colleges, around 20 per cent of HE students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the number of part-time HE students is rising year on year.

I myself only gained entry to university as a result of being educationally rescued by an FE College. This progression pathway is vital and it’s often the most determined students, and indeed employees, who have travelled this route.

HE provision in an FE College is often more skills-focused, which is essential in the current jobs market. Businesses need employees who have well-developed employability skills alongside the technical knowledge. All our teaching staff have industry-specific experience. Employer input is key and programmes are developed with employer needs at the forefront, drawing on the college’s wider employer boards for advice and direction.

And the results speak for themselves: 94 per cent of students enter our HE provision with no or low Ucas tariff scores, yet our overall success rate is an excellent 85 per cent (which compares favourably to the 75 per cent sector average). In our recent QAA inspection, the college was praised for its academic standards and the quality of its student academic experience. And, perhaps even more importantly, the number of students going on to highly skilled jobs post-graduation is 85 per cent – against a benchmark of 75 per cent.

Yet despite these obvious and crucial benefits, recruitment of students to study for a degree in an FE setting is not straightforward. Universities are bigger organisations, which means greater investment, more resources, higher salaries and a perceived higher status.

‘HE and FE both play a vital role’

Ministers understand HE far more than they do FE, and I feel this impacts on the regard they have for colleges. FE is certainly more complex in terms of student profile – with 14-16, SEN, adults to 16-plus and vocational all offered alongside more academic degree programmes. This means that funding streams and rules are far harder to navigate, and certainly a new challenge for me.

From a funding perspective, universities benefit from tuition fees and loans – while FE colleges suffer from year-on-year funding cuts, putting them at an immediate disadvantage. So what can we do to strengthen colleges’ HE provision, raise its status and get it the recognition it deserves?

I believe that as FE colleges merge and become more significant institutions within their region, they will be able to develop even stronger relationships with universities and employers, and have a greater economic impact.

In my many years of experience in the housing sector, I’ve seen how consolidation and shared services can achieve efficiencies, greater capacity and, indeed, clout. Universities are not going down this path (yet), but colleges are and I believe this will offer many longer-term benefits to the sector.

FE chairs and their boards, together with senior staff, need to stay on top of the risks and be fully aware of the climate. We need to support entrepreneurial activity and diversification, and make bold decisions. We must also continue to be aware of and listen to our communities, to enable us to meet the changing needs of people and businesses.

The HE and FE sectors are not and should not be rivals. Both have a vital role to play in educating our nation and we must do all we can to ensure they are equally respected.

Stephen Howlett is chair of corporation at London South East Colleges

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