It’s been a long-held belief that higher education (HE) usually means a three-year, full-time degree course in a red-brick university. It has generally involved an 18-year-old moving away from home for the first time to live in seedy student accommodation and eating beans on toast.
But in the 21st century, things look a bit different. As tuition fees and living costs rise, students are becoming savvier. Instead of choosing a general academic subject and studying miles away from home, many are opting for something more practical, often employer-focused and delivered by their local college.
With NCG (formerly known as the Newcastle College Group), the first further education college to gain taught degree-awarding powers, colleges can now be on a par with universities in terms of the degrees they can offer. It also demonstrates intent on the part of colleges to begin to offer something more to their local community. In fact, we expect and hope that many more colleges will follow in NCG’s footsteps.
Colleges enrol around 10 per cent of the undergraduate student population, with another 50,000 studying part-time for professional and technical education certificates, diplomas and National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs). We can only expect the number of students taking degrees in their local college to grow if more colleges are awarded these powers.
The Association of Colleges (AoC) has long been campaigning for colleges to have the ability to award their own degrees so they are not dependent on universities for their qualifications.
College HE tends to mainly specialise in professional and technical education, providing opportunities for higher level study for those who prefer a more personal educational experience and those who want to access HE locally.
There are more than 260 colleges offering HE courses, with student numbers ranging from 100 to more than 3,000. In some medium-sized towns without a university such as Blackburn, Blackpool, Grimsby, Doncaster, Leamington Spa and Truro, the college is effectively providing a local university service. In other cities with national and international-facing universities such as Hull, Newcastle, Bradford and Durham, the college provides an HE service for local people.
'Positive for local communities'
In many market towns across the country, colleges provide a vital HE service for people unable to access a university due to family and childcare commitments or high transport costs. About 50 per cent of college HE students only apply for one course at one institution and 70 per cent live within 25 miles of the college campus. Accessibility, expert teachers and industry-standard facilities are all in colleges’ favour when choices are being made.
The HE offered by colleges is tailored to meet the economic and labour market needs of the local communities they serve. It could be argued that this is so successful because students come from the local area – rather than the other end of the country like in universities – and are looking for work in that area. In fact, given colleges’ strength and the popularity of part-time degrees and diplomas, people from the local community can undertake study while holding down a full-time job.
The range of subjects available at colleges stretches from traditional technical education subjects, such as engineering, construction and manufacturing, to expanding employment areas such as beauty therapy, child and social care, and the protective services. Other popular employment areas served by colleges include the creative arts, accountancy and legal services, digital services, catering and hospitality, and transport and logistics. Land-based and agricultural colleges also offer HE courses in equestrian studies, grounds-keeping and environmental studies, among others.
So, if a town has job opportunities in several employment markets, it is highly likely the college will offer a course at the higher level, many on a part-time basis. All these courses will provide people with both the skills and knowledge to carry out a job, as colleges rightly pride themselves on their links to local employers. Indeed it is often the case that practising professionals teach on these courses.
Degree-awarding powers can only serve to make college HE stronger and more attractive, without requiring support from a university. It seems the HE colleges provide will grow and grow and this will be a positive move for the local communities they serve.
Nick Davy is the higher education policy manager at the Association of Colleges
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