Sixth-form colleges are receiving their own, government-backed allocations of places for university-level courses for the first time, as increasing competition in their main business of A levels encourages them to diversify. And as they expand their provision, some are becoming more ambitious in their courses, unveiling new academic programmes that they have designed themselves.
A new funding allocation designed to encourage alternative, low-cost, degree-level provision has offered a direct allocation of university-style places from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) to 65 new colleges, which previously would have had to rely on university partners. Four of these are sixth-form colleges: Ashton Sixth Form College in Ashton-under-Lyne, Holy Cross College in Bury, Hugh Baird College in Liverpool and Peter Symonds College in Winchester. Between them, the sixth-form colleges will offer nearly 300 places.
These "core-and-margin" allocations came after Hefce withheld a total of 20,000 places from the general allocation and opened them up to bids from institutions with an average fee of under pound;7,500: more than 10,000 of them went to 155 colleges. The aim was to slow down the scramble to raise fees to the maximum of pound;9,000 a year from September.
The move demonstrates how competition in education is increasingly a war on many fronts, with schools, general FE colleges and sixth-form colleges all battling for 16-19 places, while universities, general FE colleges and now sixth-form colleges compete for numbers in higher education (HE).
"For a long time, ministers have been saying, `We want more colleges to deliver higher education to provide an alternative to traditional, three- year university courses.' It was never clear that this included sixth-form colleges," said James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum. "Now, for the first time, they will be delivering HE provision directly, rather than franchising from universities.
"The sector is being squeezed, so sixth-form colleges are making strategic decisions to increase what they're doing in higher education. They're expanding their HE programmes. They used to just have some higher national diplomas (HNDs) or foundation degrees, but some of them are looking to offer BA courses and doing some really good work."
One example of the new breed of HE providers is Peter Symonds College in Winchester, one of the highest-performing colleges at A level in the country. It had previously offered a small number of HND courses, but found progress difficult while it relied on a university partner for their funding allocation. "Our problem was funding," said Alex Day, director of adult education at the college. "We had to have a partner to draw down funding. Now there's an opportunity for all FE colleges to grow their provision."
Under the "core-and-margin" allocations, the college has been awarded 64 places for its first-year intake in September. This year, it has offered 97 places across all three years of study.
The start of the college's HE expansion came in 2008. Ms Day, an economist by training, said it was clear that fees would go up and that there would be opportunities for alternative, lower-cost provision. Then staff wrote their own BA honours course in counselling, which was accredited by Middlesex University. That was followed by foundation degrees in sport and business.
In September, for the first time, the college will offer a two-year liberal arts programme, designed by college teachers and aimed at students coming from an academic route of A levels. They can complete the course in two years at the college and can convert it into a BA by taking a final year at university. It marks a first step towards competing with universities on academic as well as vocational courses, and it costs just pound;3,200 a year.
High-achieving A-level students may be unlikely to choose to stay on in Winchester instead of heading to a top university, but the college believes that there will be enough students in the area who see the appeal of staying locally and paying lower fees. Ms Day said that they already work with some students who have dropped out of courses at university and prefer the greater support of the college environment.
The liberal arts programme will be taught by the college's existing A- level staff, many of whom have doctorates or have previously taught in universities. Ms Day said that the college staff are enthusiastic about the challenge because of the opportunity to stretch their subject knowledge and develop their skills.
"We always saw it as a good strategic move," she said. "We have an academic reputation. Doing higher-level academic work fitted in with our profile."
Growing alternative Largest "core-and-margin" allocations for colleges Original headline: A degree of difference: sixth-form colleges go into HE for first time
Largest "core-and-margin" allocations for colleges
Original headline: A degree of difference: sixth-form colleges go into HE for first time