Colleges ‘play a vital role’ in widening access to HE

22nd April 2016 at 00:00
Impact of degree-level provision in FE institutions is highlighted by new research

THE CRUCIAL role that colleges play in offering students from the most deprived parts of the country access to higher education has been acknowledged in a landmark study.

The research, commissioned by the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), reveals that one in 10 HE students attended an FE college in 2013-14.

The make-up of HE students in FE institutions differs significantly from those attending universities, with a higher proportion of part-time and older learners (see figures, above). The percentage of learners from “cold spots” – the 20 per cent of areas with the lowest HE participation – is almost double that seen in HE institutions.

And today’s report, produced by RCU for the ETF, also shows that student recruitment is far more localised in colleges: the average distance between home and college is just 17 miles, less than a third of the average distance for those attending a university.

As a result, the study concludes that colleges are “much better placed” than universities to deliver the skills required by local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and local employers.

David Hughes, chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute, said the research confirmed the positive impact of colleges in their communities. “We know there has been a drop in part-time higher education numbers nationally, so I am pleased further education colleges are still offering flexible routes in higher education to adults who want to get on in life and in work,” he said.

Mr Hughes added that skills devolution offered greater opportunities for local authorities and LEPs to work more constructively with colleges to address the skills requirements of people already in work who needed that flexibility and progression.

Economic boost

The report also quantifies the economic impact of HE in FE: the lifetime benefits for college-based HE students who completed their degrees in 2013-14 have been valued at just under £4 billion.

This figure, the report stresses, does not take into account the productivity boost for employers resulting from individuals gaining higher-level qualifications – which could be as much as twice the increase in wages.

Sheila Kearney, head of research at the ETF, said: “The analysis illustrates how successfully FE is responding to the government’s expectations for college-based HE.”

Some 9.8 per cent of HE students in 2013-14 were enrolled at a college, the statistics reveal – of these, 44 per cent were on part-time courses. This compares with only a quarter of university students studying part-time.

While almost half of undergraduates studying at HE institutions were aged under 21, this was the case for less than a third of HE students in colleges.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that the report demonstrated colleges were a “vital part of our higher education system”.

“I have met learners who could not study at all except at a college local to their home – for example, because of childcare responsibilities,” he added. “As the HE and FE sectors both head for major reform, it is vital the FE sector’s enormous contribution to delivering higher education is fully recognised.”

Degree-awarding powers

Nick Davy, HE policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said the report highlighted the work done by colleges to attract learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. He also pointed out that, in some colleges, demographics among HE students were changing.

“You are beginning to see trends where you are seeing more 18-year-olds than those past [the age of] 25, more full-time than part time, and more honours degrees,” he added. “We have traditionally put a lot of our eggs in the full-time academic degree basket, and there are a lot of questions now [about] whether that was appropriate.”

John Widdowson, principal of New College Durham (see box, below), said the study confirmed the important role played by colleges in HE provision, and called for them to be given greater powers to award degrees.

While 244 FE colleges in England offer HE qualifications, only five of them have foundation degree-awarding powers. The rest are required to have their degrees validated by a university partner. Last month Teesside University revealed that it was severing its partnership arrangements with 10 colleges.


‘We link up with employers’

John Widdowson, principal of New College Durham (pictured), who chairs the Mixed Economy Group – which represents FE colleges with a significant HE provision – said that offering part-time degrees was an important part of colleges’ work.

“It is about close links with employers,” he said. “That has always been really important. It is the local connection, the ability to go to employers and offer progression from level 3 to 4 and 5. That is a skill level that is really lacking and colleges are well placed.”

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