The fortunes of the higher and further education sectors have, in recent years, seemed to be heading in opposite directions.
A 2015 report by the Policy Exchange thinktank pointed out that, since 2009-10, overall university income had increased by 26 per cent, while the adult skills budget had been cut by 24 per cent.
Universities were, it added, “sitting on significant financial reserves, and public spending is currently skewed too much towards higher education to the detriment of further education”.
In the subsequent two years, however, Tes has uncovered a surprising shift in the behaviour of universities: higher education institutions are expanding into FE. In just two years, university income from apprenticeships, traineeships and the adult education budget has more than doubled, from £12.6 million in 2014-15 to £31.9 million in 2016-17. In the same period, the number of universities in receipt of funding for FE provision has almost trebled, from 21 to 62.
With more and more universities looking to capitalise on the introduction of the apprenticeship levy by offering work-based qualifications at degree level, the trend is set to continue. Just last month, Middlesex University launched its new five-year strategy, promoting itself as the “university for skills”, and pledging to develop new programmes, including apprenticeships.
And the battle is set to get fiercer: the government last week announced it was launching a review of higher-level technical education – the “post-secondary, sub-tertiary qualifications” at level 4 and 5, which reside in the contested space between HE and FE.
This shift can partly be attributed to the growth in higher and degree apprenticeships. According to the latest provisional government data, the number of higher-level apprenticeships has increased tenfold over the past six years – from 5,700 in 2011-12 to 61,000 in 2016-17. But Tes understands that universities are also beginning to offer more level 3 provision, and so-called “year-zero” courses – preparation programmes for degrees.
Kirsti Lord, deputy chief executive of members’ services for the Association of Colleges, said that universities are increasingly moving into markets that had traditionally been held by further education providers “with very mixed results”.
While she said that there are some “excellent collaborations between higher education institutions and colleges”, these are “becoming scarce as competition increases”.
“In many cases, universities have chosen to set up apprenticeship delivery in isolation without the valuable employer relationships and the delivery expertise that FE colleges can offer,” said Lord.
More universities, it seems, are deciding to go it alone in the apprenticeships market. In the past year, the number of universities with membership of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers – the body for training providers – has grown from five to 14.
Chief executive Mark Dawe is cautiously supportive of this trend. “Providing degree apprenticeships are genuinely work-based and meeting the required new standards, we support the expansion of apprenticeships to higher levels and the widening of the provider base. However, we don’t want the growth in higher- and degree-level apprenticeships to be at the expense of the vital lower-level provision, nor to damage the social mobility agenda.”
Ian Pretty, chief executive of the Collab Group of colleges, believes there is “a strong case for collaboration between FE and HE” at levels 4 and 5, not least through the government’s proposed institutes of technology.
However, Pretty added that Collab members have voiced concerns about a small number of universities actively moving into the delivery of level 3 (A-level equivalent) courses. “We need to ensure that post-16 education is delivered by those who best understand how to shape and deliver curriculum,” he says. “We believe that colleges are best placed to deliver level 1, 2 and 3 educational needs.”
This is an edited version of an article in the 10 November edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents.