The true ‘gold standard’ for Levels 4 and 5 is FE

16th February 2018 at 00:00
With technical education currently under review, Kirsti Lord argues colleges are better placed than universities to continue leading the delivery of higher-level skills

Within the FE sector, we are well used to change (I can imagine the wry smiles of colleagues as I write these words). But change is currently happening at a rapid rate, with the apprenticeship levy, the industrial strategy, skills strategy, T levels and the focus on social mobility, for starters. And, let’s not forget, we have a new secretary of state, too.

Level 4 and 5 technical education is currently under review by the government because, as a country, we have insufficient numbers of people with those skills to meet employer demand. Being the major educational providers at that level, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask why colleges should continue to deliver these qualifications in the volumes they do and to lead the market, rather than the university sector doing it. The reasons why they should are very compelling, not least because the recently introduced quality indicator, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which recognises excellent teaching in HE and progression into high-skills employment, awarded more than 80 colleges gold, silver and bronze standards last year.

Meeting local needs

Colleges have been delivering Levels 4 and 5, in the guise of HNCs, HNDs, diplomas and foundation degrees, for decades. When broken down, these represent almost 63 per cent of colleges’ full-time HE delivery or just under 100,000 students, as opposed to less than 2 per cent of business in higher education institutions (HEIs). The number of higher-level apprenticeships delivered by colleges has more than doubled in the past two years to more than 15,000, compared with fewer than 1,000 in HEIs. The different focus of business in each of the types of organisation is clear, with HEIs commanding the market in first degrees and colleges dominating on Levels 4 and 5, enabling them to commit real expertise and infrastructure to ensure quality.

In terms of meeting local labour-market needs, RCU data for 2015-16 shows that more than 78 per cent of HE students in colleges studied within their Local Enterprise Partnership boundaries. This is significant, as the average HE student at college travels 15 miles to study compared with 53 miles at a university. This is partly because the courses on offer are developed in partnership with local employers to meet their skill gaps, hence the high proportion taking science, technology, engineering and maths qualifications. It is also partly because most HE students at college will live at home while they are studying; they may well already be in work and contributing to their local economy, with their productivity being improved by their higher-level qualifications.

There is also a continued focus on increasing social mobility, or in HE terminology, widening participation. Enormous investment has been made and numerous strategies introduced to widen participation in HE over the past decade, and longer. While participation from disadvantaged young adults has increased, the gap between them and others has remained stubbornly wide. So the question remains, how do we encourage more disadvantaged young people into HE, retain them, and improve their employment and life opportunities?

Familiar environments

Colleges already recruit double the percentage of full-time students from POLAR (participation of local areas) “cold spots” (those postcode areas in which people are least likely to go into HE) compared with universities. There are some simple reasons for this: students choosing HE in FE may well have studied at the college at Level 3 (possibly Levels 1 and 2 as well); have grown to know their environment, their tutors and understand the level of support they can expect; and will really understand the course they have signed up to. They have become part of the college community. They can also live at home while studying, which can break down both financial and cultural barriers to higher levels of study. Students can maintain the part-time jobs they had while at college, as well as their family and social commitments, enabling skills development in a familiar environment – often with lower course fees, smaller group sizes and more taught hours.

Attending university remains the aspirational “gold standard” of HE. This influences the advice and guidance given in schools, and the perceptions of parents, to value residential full-time undergraduate degrees above other options. In many instances, a full-time university course will be the right pathway for a student. But other routes are often more suitable and offer a faster track into skilled employment, particularly in technical qualifications, with potentially less debt.

The quality of provision in colleges has been recognised in TEF awards, student satisfaction results and destination data. Colleges also represent real value for money. Let’s leave Levels 4 and 5 to the experts.

Kirsti Lord is deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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