Colleges and universities must forge closer links but be wary of outright mergers, a report for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals says this week.
Research into the links between further and higher education shows no let-up in the co-operative arrangements, with FE and sixth-form colleges offering new routes to degree and higher diploma courses for adults without A-levels and other students wishing to study nearer home.
Universities are increasingly recruiting within their regions, in most cases in partnership with FE-sector colleges. The networks were collaborating to plan HE across their region, with some universities playing a central role in economic regeneration, research by the Institute for Employment Studies at Sussex University shows.
Numbers of HE students in FE were small, but significant. In England, 9 per cent of HE students are in colleges, in Wales the figure is 6 per cent. Scotland has 29 per cent and Northern Ireland 15 per cent.
This amounts to a tiny fraction of the overall FE provision. Last year, 157,000 out of 3 million in FE were on HE courses, the biggest groups in engineering and business, and the majority of courses were intended to support the professional development of people in work.
The report of the research points to clear mutual benefits, with universities drawing on a wider pool of students from non-traditional routes and earning cash from accrediting HE courses in colleges. The FE colleges can offer students more progression, and see "status" in being an associated college.
But Sue Rawlinson, IES research fellow and author of the report, said that the work raised many concerns. Colleges were viewed as marginally the lesser partner in the deals. Some universities were concerned that the presence of FE staff and students would "dilute their academic standards".
The HND and HE foundation courses were vulnerable to students choosing three-year degrees and were most likely to be axed by spending cuts. Colleges also received no capital funding for HE work and found their franchise courses - which they ran for paymaster universities - were most vulnerable to falling student numbers.
"Some new universities will provide FE in their own right, and a few will consider mergers with colleges," she said. "It is possible that a merged institution might find it difficult to retain the strengths of the separate sectors," she warned.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of the CVCP, said: "Artificial barriers to progression must be broken down. Students should enjoy trouble-free movement between the sectors so that they can benefit from the distinctive strengths of each."
The FEHE Interface: A UK perspective is published this week by the Institute for Employment Studies.