It is a phenomenon as old as the UK education system itself: the moment at the end of compulsory education when a young person has to decide whether to head to university or choose a more vocational route, be that a college course, an apprenticeship or employment.
Many of the major influences behind that decision have not changed in decades: peer pressure and family expectation, background, schooling and career aspirations all influence young people’s choices to this day. But in some ways, the options available are less clear-cut than they used to be. No longer do universities simply offer a three-year degree to undergraduates; colleges, similarly, provide a range of courses far wider than just BTECs.
As the government’s review of post-18 education and funding looms ever closer, is the time-honoured distinction between higher and further education, between university and college, still a valid one? Is there a case to be made for bridging the divide between the two and looking at the post-GCSE landscape afresh?
The boundaries are already blurring. A number of colleges have a sizeable higher education offer; indeed, one in 10 HE students attends a college. And the assumption that they offer a cut-price alternative to university is simplistic: while some 44 of the 50 institutions charging the lowest tuition fees for 2019-20 are colleges, five colleges charge £9,250 for at least some courses – the maximum fee allowed, on a par with the likes of the universities of Cambridge and Oxford.
Universities, too, are venturing into areas that would traditionally have been viewed as the preserve of colleges. Many have introduced so-called foundation years or year 0s, which are being used to bring students not currently at university level into the institution early and prepare them for a subsequent degree course.
The reform of the apprenticeship system has also driven significant change. While the overall number of starts has deteriorated year-on-year, following the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, the number of higher-level apprenticeships has more than doubled in three years – from 19,800 starts in 2014-15 to 48,200 in 2017-18. These apprenticeships are available from level 4 (equivalent to a foundation degree) up to level 7 (on a par with a postgraduate degree).
In 2018-19, funding for FE provision from the Education and Skills Funding Agency is worth £53.7 million to universities (of which, £29.8 million was for apprenticeships), up by two-thirds from the previous year, and four times the income three years earlier. During this same period, the number of universities delivering FE provision almost trebled, from 21 to 62.
A ‘comprehensive’ solution
So if the boundary between further and higher education is blurring, what could the system look like in the future?
In a 2017 report for the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), Professor Tim Blackman, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, floated the idea of a “comprehensive university” to address the “fundamental issue of lack of diversity in so many of our universities”. He did not go as far as to call for a complete shift to comprehensive higher education, “but one that introduces a large comprehensive element while preserving some selection and retaining a special status for a small number of research institutions”.
He added: “All students would benefit from replacing a stratified higher education system with mixed-tariff institutions where the diversity of cognitive abilities and identities would be a resource for everyone’s learning.
“Diversity would be both an input and an outcome, helping make society more tolerant, populating public services jobs with professionals who are more representative of their users, and improving business productivity. The attractiveness of the predominantly Russell Group, highly selective universities to more privileged students would be reduced in tandem with increasing the attractiveness of post-92, less-selective universities.”
Reaching beyond the university bubble, in the UK education system we have already seen mergers of universities and colleges, bringing together a broader range of courses and levels under one roof.
Last year, Bolton’s college and university became the latest to join forces. Tertiary organisations, offering everything from plumbing courses to postgraduate degrees, also already exist. The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) in Scotland, which is made up of a partnership of 13 FE colleges and research institutions, offers progression from entry level up to doctorates.
Garry Coutts, the UHI’s chair of court, believes switching to completely tertiary institutions is the only way to offer genuine parity between vocational and academic routes. Speaking at a conference in June, he said the current post-16 education system was “boxing in” learners, and creating significant duplication and repetition.
“People should have that clear line of sight all the way to [doctorate] level,” he explained. What was needed, he argued, was a system with “launch pads”, allowing people to leave at specific points along the way and go into successful careers, but also “docking stations”, allowing them to re-enter.
For now, a continued blurring of lines is more likely than a more dramatic overhaul of the system that would lead to the UHI model being mirrored elsewhere. Aside from the vested interests of individual institutions, the university and college sectors still offer distinct features that are valued by the students entering them.
One crucial factor is access. While university students are often willing to travel to the opposite end of the country to attend their preferred institution, those taking HE courses in a college setting – often learners with children or other commitments – may be more attracted by the prospect of on-the-doorstep provision. As a 2017 report by the Education and Training Foundation found, the average distance an HE student travels to college is 15 miles, compared with 53 miles for those attending university.
In the same year, a survey of more than 60,000 students from 65 universities around the world, published in Times Higher Education, revealed that the most common reason why students attended university was a passion for a subject, while the continuation of learning and development came second. About a quarter of respondents ranked the statement “because university is the natural progression after school” as one of their top-three reasons. Over 16 per cent said they made the decision because it was expected of them, while just over 9 per cent stated that they wanted to go to university because everyone around them did so.
The survey also revealed what students look for when selecting a university. High-quality teaching came top, followed by the availability of scholarships. The prestige of the institution’s brand came fifth, while good employment rates and an effective careers service with links to employers were eight and tenth respectively.
Research by Madeleine King, Arti Saraswat and John Widdowson for the Mixed Economy Group of colleges in 2013 found that students studying HE at college valued the financial advantages this entailed – including the local nature of FE colleges, as well as the increased class-contact hours and greater individual study support from tutors. However, it also revealed that HE students “do not like to share libraries, academic and social spaces with FE students”.
According to David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, keeping the two sectors distinct is crucial. “Now more than ever, we need to describe a distinct role for universities and for colleges, which sets out the space they both occupy,” he says. “That does not mean that there won’t be some universities that look in part like colleges and some colleges that look in part like universities, but both sectors do have a distinct and vital purpose. We are pleased that the government has realised this and is working with us to set that out more clearly.”
Mary Curnock Cook, former chief executive of the university admissions service Ucas, also argues that there are “very distinctive differences of mission, culture and student experience between colleges and universities, not least because universities are scholarly communities working to create new knowledge through research, as well as through teaching”.
She says that, while she is in favour of collaboration and articulation between FE and HE, the two types of institution have “separate and different purposes, and merging them together would only reduce choice for students”. She adds: “It’s also worth remembering that, in 1992, when polytechnics became universities, they also became more like universities, to the extent that the government now feels it needs to rebuild the gap in higher technical education at levels 4 and 5 that has emerged. Further education colleges have much to offer, and the higher technical education agenda is an opportunity for them to inject new purpose and distinctiveness into their role.”
Hepi director Nick Hillman agrees that the UK’s mixed model – in which universities and colleges have distinct purposes, but are also allowed to deliver a broad range of qualifications – has worked well, but he says it has also “encouraged some turbulence as institutions evolve over time”.
“We need to recognise this starting point in any future changes,” Hillman adds. “What I think we particularly need to avoid is banning useful education from taking place. If colleges can successfully deliver degrees, especially in cold spots, and universities can successfully deliver foundation courses and standalone level 4 and level 5 courses, it would be crazy to block that by drawing formal boundaries between the two.
“We also need to avoid [using] alienating and confusing language – no one talks about ‘tertiary’ down the pub, but they do talk about colleges, universities and even ‘higher education’.The third thing we need to avoid is pretending colleges and universities tend to be doing exactly the same job; this has happened, for example, when vocational qualifications have been made overly academic.”
So should colleges, then, continue to focus on bringing higher education to people and places that otherwise would not have access to it, while also leaving universities free to pursue foundation programmes to expand their own outreach offerings? Or should there be a more coordinated approach – especially given education secretary Damian Hinds’ announcement last month of plans for a “new generation” of higher technical qualifications at level 4 and 5 – the no-man’s land that neither HE nor FE have made their own?
‘Unbalanced and unfair’
Ongoing reforms are likely to bring further change on this front. It has been suggested that the report of the post-18 review panel, expected in the coming weeks, will recommend lowering HE tuition fees to £6,500, with possible higher fees for science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects, which could significantly affect the HE landscape.
Philip Augar, the panel chair, has also said that evidence has been submitted to the review that highlights the unbalanced and unfair nature of the current post-18 system – particularly for “non-traditional” students, such as part-time and mature learners.
The introduction of the government’s £170 million Institutes of Technology, which will be set up to deliver education in Stem subjects, will also force closer cooperation between universities and colleges – with the government envisaging them as joint projects between at least one FE organisation or private provider and an HE institution.
If colleges can be fleet of foot and respond to the changes that emerge in the post-18 landscape, the opportunities are out there, according to Widdowson, principal of New College Durham, who believes there is a “polytechnic-sized void” that colleges can fill.
“There is a need in the higher-skills area from level 3, 4 and 5,” he says. “There is also a need for localness; a lot of this is about knowing what the local labour market is about.”
Widdowson adds that he “could see a situation where we have a small number of institutions that will still be called FE colleges, but they will have a large amount of HE offer, particularly at the higher-skills levels 3, 4 and 5”. This, he says, could be set out as a “hub-and-spokes model”, with such institutions at the centre and other FE providers feeding students through.
If colleges and universities manage to set aside their deep-rooted cultural differences and find new ways of working together, the future could start to look much brighter for everyone.
Julia Belgutay is deputy FE editor for Tes. She tweets @JBelgutay
‘The pinnacle of apprenticeships shouldn’t be a degree’
Degree apprenticeships – which involve learners earning a degree following a period of work-based training – have been hailed by the government as a key means of boosting the prestige of the apprenticeship programme.
But the underpinning assumption that the academic “degree” label is needed to achieve this is frustrating for Euan Blair, founder of tech start-up and training provider WhiteHat.
“The challenge with degree apprenticeships is that we still have the idea that you need a degree; that credential is still important and everyone needs to have it,” he says. “And I certainly disagree.”
Employers, believes Blair, are increasingly looking for technical competence more than academic labels; achievements can be valued just as much by being pegged at level 6 as by being dubbed a “degree”, he adds.
“The pinnacle of an apprenticeship shouldn’t be a degree apprenticeship,” says Blair (pictured, inset). “You can be a real expert in your field without ever getting a university involved. If you work for four or five years at Google or Facebook, no one is going to doubt you can do that job.”