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The evolving tertiary space in the UK:  Meeting the skills needs through HE in FE

  • 9 August 2023
  • By Andrea Laczik and Josh Patel
  • This blog was kindly written for the HEPI 20th Anniversary Collection by two authors from the Edge Foundation: Dr Andrea Laczik, Director of Research, and Dr Josh Patel, Researcher. We are currently running chapters from the Anniversary Collection as a series of blogs. This piece is the fourth chapter from that collection.
  • Register here for our free webinar on Monday, 14 August with UCAS Chief Executive Clare Marchant.

The university sector in the UK is, despite its status in popular and political discourse, only one part of a much broader spectrum of post-secondary education. This spectrum of tertiary education and training also includes further education (FE) colleges and other higher education institutions (HEIs). Neither has the nature of higher education remained static; its aims and size have changed significantly over time, and there is of course significant variation between individual institutions and between the regulatory frameworks of the four nations of the UK.

In this complex environment, the concept of the tertiary sector can enable a holistic approach to education and training, and help align individual actors to support common societal, economic and policy goals. There are positive indications that, across the UK, systematic initiatives are underway to move towards such an approach. Examples of good practice occur at regional and local level across the four nations. However, these efforts face significant challenges and there is scope for further development of a holistic tertiary approach.

Higher education in context

The UK certainly possesses a growing and diverse ‘mass’ higher education system, as defined by Martin Trow, representing a substantial portion of a tertiary sector with participation rates at least at 40%.1 From 2000 to 2022, higher education student numbers increased from 1.81 million to 2.86 million and applications to enter higher education institutions reached record highs.

Historically, universities were attended by future leaders of society while FE colleges offered the provision needed for the labour market. FE and HE have thus been perceived as applying different approaches to education, targeting different student groups, and the qualifications awarded by different institutions were viewed as preparation for different social roles. This led to a perceived hierarchy between the two sectors. The Further and Higher Education Act (1992) in England reinforced the separation of FE and HE and created the two distinct sectors with separate funding streams.2 According to Gareth Parry this structure underpinned the assumption that FE and HE:

stood for different levels of learning and, for this main reason, should be provided by separate types of organisation … and, without serious challenge then or since, it has become part of the taken-for-granted world of further and higher education.3

Consequently, the overlap between FE and HE provision, in particular undergraduate provision, has been overlooked, perhaps because this method of delivery of higher education is still not regarded as normal or necessary. Furthermore, the relative newness of HE in FE and its perceived status mean that it attracts little interest in terms of research and evaluation.

Nevertheless, some detail of the scale of this provision is available across the four nations from HESA.4 In England, one in three of those aged 19 years and under studying a higher education course are doing so at an FE college. In 2022/23, there are 110,000 people studying undergraduate and postgraduate courses at 153 colleges registered by the Office for Students (OfS) to offer HE courses.5 In Scotland, both full-time and part-time student numbers in FE have increased, by 6.8% and 9.4% respectively, due to the increase in provision of HNCs and HNDs.6 In Wales in 2019/20 there were 6,935 enrolments in HE in FE courses. In Northern Ireland, the six regional colleges were delivering about 20% of HE provision in the form of higher vocational programmes and foundation degrees.7

HE has also converged with FE as institutions bring new emphasis to their engagement with employers and local communities, and initiatives have been introduced to expand work-related higher education and training – particularly through the introduction of, for example, Degree Apprenticeships in England and Graduate Apprenticeships in Scotland.

Responding to common challenges but going different ways

The UK currently faces pressing challenges arising from the continuing fallout of the pandemic and Brexit, the ramifications of climate change, digitalisation and automation and the increasing demand for highly qualified skilled labour to secure regional and national economic growth and international competitiveness. Skills shortages across the economies highlight a growing need for accessible higher vocational provisions to meet these national requirements.

The response to these challenges and other local concerns by FE and higher education institutions varies across the four parts of the UK. The devolution of powers after 1998 from Westminster to the Northern Ireland Assembly, Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly of Wales has led to differences to varying extents between each nation’s further and higher education systems. In effect, this has created a UK policy ‘laboratory’ where the different mix of social partners and specific national contexts means unique approaches to common challenges can arise. This provides a ready-made context for policy learning across the four nations, an approach that is superior to policy borrowing as it retains an awareness of the context of a policy in its national educational, political, economic and social environments.

There is a clear interest and rhetoric in supporting a single, coherent and complementary tertiary education across all four nations in the UK as they share much history and face similar social, economic and global challenges. There is, however, a fundamental difference from the outset: while England’s approach to education and training is based on marketisation, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales take a more system-based approach. The Further Education Trust for Leadership argues:

 Even in countries where a systems-based approach is dominant, such as Scotland, institutions are sometimes competing for scarce funding, students and prestige. In other words, inside systems, there is often an element of contestability and competition.8

Funding is one key driving force enabling or prohibiting the development of partnerships between colleges and universities across the UK. Each specific funding arrangement – direct, indirect or consortia – makes its specific mark on FE and HE collaboration. Wales, for example, has decided to pursue a franchise route, meaning ‘the HEI retains responsibility for student numbers, the curriculum, the quality of the provision and the student experience’.9 In Northern Ireland, the Department for the Economy manages the funding of education. In England, FE colleges are funded by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and higher education institutions by the Office for Students, keeping the two sectors’ funding streams unhelpfully separate. In practice, the devolved nations’ funding choices may heighten unproductive competition within and between the FE and HE sectors.10

Meeting the needs of economy through collaboration

There is a UK-wide ambition to ensure the economic and social wellbeing of people by improving their skills. Evidence from the devolved nations suggests collaboration between higher education institutions and FE can contribute to efforts to meet the skills demands of the labour market. The provision of FE colleges, as anchor institutions in their local communities, links closely with local and regional skills needs and contributes to economic impact. In a holistic tertiary sector this can be beneficial, financially and otherwise, for HE and FE, and for the student, who could complete two of the three years of a degree course locally and attend university for their final year to obtain a degree. This would mean rationalising available resources. In 2015, the Review of higher education in further education institutions in Wales found that FE colleges that deliver mostly vocational courses can support and help meet the needs of specific higher skills that local and regional employers need.11 Through their vocational courses and their close links with employers, employability is a natural outcome. Further, HE in FE attracts participation from local communities and from underserved and disadvantaged groups that otherwise would not engage with HE studies. Colleges’ ability to deliver intermediate and higher courses flexibly and locally contributes to widening access to higher education, and inspires learners to continue with their education.

The Welsh Government, concerned with rationalising a complex and fragmentary post-secondary education landscape, has established the legal framework for a broad holistic approach through the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Act (2022). This is considered the most significant framework for tertiary education – including FE, HE and post16 education and training – in the UK since devolution. While the Act provides the framework, details are currently being finalised and the Commission for the Tertiary Education and Research will soon become fully operational.

The Scottish Government is pursuing a strategy of strengthening networks through Enterprise and Skills Strategic boards, bringing together government agencies with colleges, universities and employers to strengthen links between tertiary education and economic development in policy and delivery. Consequently, colleges operate in an increasingly coherent strategic policy environment which includes, for example, ‘Articulation Agreements’ enabling students with prior further education qualifications to enter degree studies at later stages. Guidelines for local and regional Articulation Agreements are developed by Colleges Scotland and Universities Scotland through the National Articulation Forum:

At their best, these show local leaders taking responsibility to develop joined-up pathways that support people to access education and training opportunities that may otherwise be out of reach.12

In Northern Ireland, colleges have gone through a process of rationalisation and emerged as six regional colleges. FE colleges, universities and other HEIs regularly meet at the Tertiary Education Sector Leaders Forum. FE programmes directly link to national, regional and local skills needs. Northern Ireland has pioneered a unique model of collaboration across the six regional colleges called Curriculum Hubs. Each college takes the lead for certain priority and growth sector areas, such as Digital IT, Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing or Construction. The lead college is tasked with developing high quality provision with labour market value using collective experience and expertise from across the six colleges. The Curriculum Hub is built on collaboration between colleges, HEIs and employers to benefit both learners and employers and to support lifelong learning.

In contrast, England has a complex and disjointed education and skills system in flux that operates in a quasi-market. The separation of HE and FE funding and the consistent underfunding of FE colleges do not offer a good basis for HE and FE collaboration. In England, putting employers at the heart of the system has been central. The employer-led Institutes of Technology (IoT), following a new model to deliver skills, were announced in 2019 and may serve as an example which is based on strategic collaboration between FE, HE and employers. Their aim is, for example, to deliver world class technical education and training, fill skills gaps in their specialisms and support adult learners who look for flexible access to HE. While there are examples of good practices, such as the London City IoT and Lincolnshire IoT, systematic evaluation of the Institutes of Technology is necessary to identify the strength and weaknesses of this new model.13 In general, more needs to be done to achieve a system-wide tertiary sector.

Concluding remarks

The separation of FE and HE looked as firmly entrenched as ever 20 years ago. Even though the ‘binary divide’ between HE and advanced FE was breached with the redesignation of the polytechnics as universities in 1992, and devolution opened up the possibility of divergent HE and FE policy strategies, the university sector remained highly stratified and detached from the rest of tertiary education. The recent and rapid progress towards improving coordination is powered by the recognition that addressing national social and economic priorities requires the effective utilisation and coordination of the strengths of both FE and HE.

There is increasingly constructive discussion about the need to develop a holistic, agile and embedded tertiary system in each of the devolved nations, founded on a shared agreement that higher skills are the key to economic growth and international competitiveness. The principles that support the further development of such a collaborative system are the same for each place: for example, clear roles and responsibilities of stakeholders; collaboration rather than competition; and taking a systematic approach to plan tertiary education and skills provision. However, the extent to which these have been achieved by each nation differs starkly.

Today, the four parts of the UK all demonstrate slow but considerable progress in achieving their own distinct ‘tertiary visions’. The specificities of approaches of the devolved nations, with their many common grounds, offer an expansive platform for learning in the UK’s policy laboratory that can support further progress of the individual nations.

There is considerable scope for further development in all parts of the UK and significant questions remain as to what shape a tertiary sector might take and how it might operate. The scale of local, national and international challenges seems unlikely to abate over the next 20 years. If the four nations are to best prepare their citizens to help tackle these complex and multifaceted challenges, the transferability of people and increased coordination at a tertiary level will be a key asset.


  1. Martin Trow, ‘Problems in the Transition from Elite to Mass Higher Education’, Policies for Higher Education, 1974, pp.55-101; Martin Trow, ‘Reflections on the Transition from Elite to Mass to Universal Access: Forms and Phases of Higher Education in Modern Societies since WWII’, in James JF Forest and Philip G Altbach, International Handbook on Higher Education, 2006, pp.243-280
  2. Separate higher education funding councils were established to  support universities in England, Scotland and Wales. In England there was also a funding council for FE.
  3. Gareth Parry, ‘Higher education, further education and the English experiment’, Higher Education Quarterly, vol. 63 no.4, p.332
  5. Association of Colleges, College Key Facts. 2022-23
  6. Scottish Funding Council, College Statistics 2020-2021
  7. Four Nations College Alliance, The College of the Future, 2021
  8. Ewart Keep, Scripting the future: exploring potential strategic leadership responses to the marketization of English FE and vocational provision,  Further Education Trust for Leadership, 2018 wp-content/uploads/2018/07/FETL_scriptingthefuture-web.pdf
  9. Colleges Wales, Higher Education in Further Education Institutions Briefing: Challenges and opportunities for renewal in difficult times, 2020 p.4 in%20FEI%27s%20Challenging%20times/200511%20HE%20in%20FE%20briefing%202020%20ENG.pdf
  10. Philippa Alway, Lewis Cooper, Natalie Day, Lizzie Morgan, Going Further and Higher: how collaboration between colleges and universities can transform lives and places, 2022 https://static1.squarespace. com/static/5c8847f58dfc8c45fa705366/t/61fd82e3daacdb5273637 16d/1644004087270/Going+Further+and+Higher+-+English-compressed.pdf
  11. Welsh Government, Review of higher education in further education institutions, 2015
  12. Philippa Alway, Lewis Cooper, Natalie Day, Lizzie Morgan, Going Further and Higher: how collaboration between colleges and universities can transform lives and places, 2022 https://static1.squarespace. com/static/5c8847f58dfc8c45fa705366/t/61fd82e3daacdb5273637 16d/1644004087270/Going+Further+and+Higher+-+English-compressed.pdf p.11
  13. Philippa Alway, Lewis Cooper, Natalie Day, Lizzie Morgan, Going Further and Higher: how collaboration between colleges and universities can transform lives and places, 2022, p.14 https://static1.squarespace. com/static/5c8847f58dfc8c45fa705366/t/61fd82e3daacdb5273637 16d/1644004087270/Going+Further+and+Higher+-+English-compressed.pdf

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