Hundreds more colleges could join UCAS if a vote today goes in their favour. Harvey McGavin reports.
Colleges and universities will compete for students on an equal footing if plans to allow further education institutions to join the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service are approved.
The service's board will vote today on whether to invite all FE colleges offering at least one full-time HND or HNC course to join the higher education clearing house - at present only institutions offering full-time degree courses can join.
Around 50 FE colleges are currently UCAS members but the rule change could open up its clearing system to hundreds more, with major long-term implications for the sector.
A UCAS spokesman confirmed that a report detailing the proposals would go before its board meeting this week. About a dozen colleges had been "knocking on the door" seeking admission, he said. "We are the the central admission service for higher education in the UK, so there is an argument that it is only right that colleges providing higher education courses should have the same rights to recruit students as those already using the UCAS system.
"If the board was to agree to this it would be a fairly historic decision.
It would open the way for a whole new way of recruitment for FE colleges."
UCAS fills places at some 260 institutions but, if colleges offering HND-level courses join, that number could more than double, vastly increasing the running costs of the organisation.
The service is already planning to replace its expensively-produced handbook - the bible of higher education options which runs to 1,600 pages - with an electronic database, and the board's decision could depend on whether or not the likely cost of including the large number of colleges running a handful of HND level courses is deemed uneconomic.
"A lot depends on the number of students they would recruit through us," the UCAS spokesman said. "There is no joining fee, and we have a large amount of work to do in advance."
The move would be supported by the Association of Colleges, which conducted a survey of nearly 70 of its members over the summer with preliminary results showing a clear majority in favour of joining.
Judith Norrington, the AOC's director of curriculum, said: "We welcome the fact that UCAS is looking at how it can incorporate the wide range of FE more effectively into their processes - it treats equal provision on an equal footing. But it's not for the sake of colleges, it is for the sake of students."
A universal clearing system would make sense in view of the fact that universities, like colleges, are recruiting more of their intake locally, giving students a more comprehensive view of what was on offer. It would also protect colleges from poaching - the seasonal complaint that students are whisked out from under their noses by universities hungry for numbers.
UCAS chief executive Tony Higgins hinted at the need for a change in the system 18 months ago, when he wrote in The TES: "The dividing line between FE and HE is becoming increasingly blurred. The question is whether there should be a clearing-house for FE institutions."
John Tredwell, principal of Worcester sixth-form college and co-opted FE member of the UCAS board, said: "I think colleges will be admitted. There is general support for that."