The higher education map is being radically redrawn through mergers with the FE sector and funding for a university for the Highlands. Colleges seeking links with higher education partners will increasingly turn to prestigious "old" universities as they shop around for the best deal, a major report on connections between the sectors says.
A study carried out for university vice-chancellors, details of which have been revealed to The TES, will suggest there is no sign of a halt in bridge-building between higher and further education.
However, the report from the independent Institute for Employment Studies is expected to predict a change in the current pattern of a plethora of connections varying from loose links to firm partnership. Though variety will continue, the emphasis will increasingly fall on stronger, more formal bonds and "good quality relationships" as universities seek reliable partners and colleges look for benefits for their students and staff.
The study, titled The FEHE Interface: A UK Perspective, suggests HE institutions will retain the upper hand in managing such links, but predicts colleges will also become more choosy, increasingly approaching old universities in order to benefit from their perceived status.
Regional developments between higher education institutions and their neighbouring colleges are particularly likely to proliferate as hard-up students increasingly opt to study from home and universities seize the chance of a guaranteed local recruitment pool.
The IES research, based on analysis of current data, consultation with national bodies and an in-depth study of a small sample of universities and partner colleges, will provide the clearest picture so far of the scale of FE-HE links.
Its publication is timely, coinciding with the end of the consultation period on pioneering proposals to merge the University of Derby with two neighbouring further education colleges in the first union involving a university and general FE institutions. The study points to the fact that no national policy exists on FE-HE mergers, and to the lack of any national debate on such developments or their effects on local education provision.
The Derby scheme has sparked fears that full legal mergers between sectors could lead to so-called "mission drift", with colleges in danger of abandoning their traditional student base to concentrate on HE.
The IES study acknowledges concern, but suggests there is no evidence of drift. Both colleges and universities want FE provision to stay geared to local, small-scale demand, it says.
Though the authors of the report found no evidence of confusion about respective roles and missions of FE and HE institutions, they predict a "scatter-gun approach" as colleges and universities seek to keep up their respective strengths while also maintaining diversity.
Some universities will offer more further education - possibly through mergers with colleges, while the college sector could end up diversifying far more widely than at present according to the emphasis placed on HE work.
The report notes that as links and partnerships between the sectors continue to develop, more attention will have to be paid by both sides to the day-to-day management of those relationship. The lack of time for staff, particularly in FE colleges, to prepare work, is identified as a growing problem.
The profileration of qualifications, modules and credit accumulation on offer to students could also pose problems for progression, since students will face increasing difficulties in making the best choice of course and institution.
The FEHE Interface: A UK Perspective will be published by the Institute for Employment Studies on October 14.