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Is the future tertiary?

  • 1 September 2023
  • By Alice Wilby
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Alice Wilby, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Access, Participation and Student Experience) at University College Birmingham.

Creating a parity of esteem between Further Education and Higher Education, or between ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’, is often suggested as a good idea to improve skills shortages, achieve levelling up and promote economic growth. As Wales establishes a Commission for Tertiary Education and Research and Keir Starmer signals that Labour policy will look again at skills policy with the creation of ‘Skills England’, as a sector we must ask how best FE and HE can work more closely together. If change is coming, will this be incentivised or even forced upon institutions?

Of course, there has never been as clear a divide between FE and HE as some commentary on HE would suggest. We’ve seen FE embrace HE delivery much more quickly than we’ve seen the reverse in recent years – incentivised through relatively higher funding for HE, and through incentives to address HE cold spots. There are many FE colleges on the OfS register, with many more delivering HE through franchise arrangements and Institutes of Technology. We’ve also seen a rise in HE institutions working with FE neighbours to deliver a more regionally joined-up approach to skills-centred education, with some HE institutions going even further by delivering FE-level education themselves.

University College Birmingham is already an institution that could be described as Tertiary – we have been a full university since 2012 (not a university college, despite the name), and have around 6500 HE students, plus 500 HE apprentices. But we value our FE roots, and have 2000 FE students, with plans to open a sixth form centre from 2024. We maintain our FE provision for lots of reasons – most significantly because it’s an important part of our institutional mission. We’re not alone with several other Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) with activity across FE and HE, all with different structures and approaches such as the Open University, Nottingham Trent University, University of Salford or Hartpury University. Their activity may encourage more HE in FE, but there are few incentives the other way.

There are advantages to being a HEI with FE provision:

  • Regional Influence: We can really deliver regional skills-based education and have an influence on regional policy via local skills improvement plans and devolved authorities.
  • Widening participation: We can develop full pathway education, with progression mapped from Levels 1 to 7.  At University College Birmingham we have examples of students who have started with us at Level 1, having struggled at school, and progressed all the way to a masters. As well as the amazing impact on students, this has regulatory advantages in Access and Participation Plans although not a significant incentive for HEIs as this isn’t recognised in the attainment raising part of the Equal of Opportunity Risk Register.
  • Recruitment and retention: A clear pipeline to HE, plus the ability to ‘shape’ students before they arrive and so support them to remain on course. At University College Birmingham we can do this in an embedded way as an HEI for our own FE provision.
  • Employer relationships: We offer employers access to a wide range of students and courses, and provide smoother pathways for their own employees, particularly around apprenticeships.

There are also challenges, some of which could be overcome through changes to government policy and regulation:

  • Regulation: Many HEIs are experiencing the challenge of being regulated by multiple bodies for apprenticeships. Tertiary institutions must contend with OfS, Ofsted, DfE, ESFA, IfATE and devolved authorities. This could be overcome partially by an integrated regulator like in Wales.
  • Funding: It’s no secret that FE funding levels are generally far lower than HE. The equalising of FE and HE funding would make things worse for everyone so for a strong and place-based approach there would need to be collaboration incentives and funding that adequately covered the costs of specialist education at all levels.
  • Geography: Increasingly there are FE cold spots geographically as well as HE, as tight funding makes disparate college campuses unviable. There may be some opportunities for HE to set up whole new FE entities, but a systematic change is likely to require FE and HE collaboration.
  • Culture and approach: There are positives in both HE and FE culture but bringing them closer together would require a thoughtful approach to educational philosophies.
So, why should institutions consider this?

There are clear benefits for HE institutions, but perhaps more of note are the benefits to and wider impacts on society:

  • Place-based incentives: both cementing the civic mission of many institutions and potentially bringing the power of HE to more communities and regions.
  • Institutional incentives: Diversifying income, bringing in new student audiences and ‘owning’ progression pathways.
  • Moral incentives: Serving the ‘other 50%’, making a difference to local communities and creating seamless pathways for students.
  • Reputational incentives: both for the institution with regional and national government, and for the sector as a whole, if we can provide a positive solution to skills gaps.
How to do it?

There isn’t a singular model and it’s unlikely that one would work. We at University College Birmingham, are HEIs with a partially FE-history, and a legacy of specialist provision. Some large FE colleges are becoming serious HE players in their region such as Blackpool and Newcastle College Group. Some HEIs are merging existing colleges into their group structure, e.g. most of the Welsh approach and London South Bank University. There are pros and cons to each of these responses. Incentives that can support a diversity of approaches are likely to be the most successful; what works in one regional context won’t be effective in another. 

The government could incentivise HE institutions through the Lifelong Loan Entitlement by extending it to cover FE adult provision. An LLE that extends to Level 1 and covers over-18s, whatever course they are studying, providing a lifetime entitlement across courses covering Levels 1 to 7 (instead of the currently proposed 4-6) could be a game changer for upskilling adults where and when it’s relevant to their lives.

In many regions, the lack of adults qualified to Level 3 is a barrier to further HE expansion and to the development of desperately needed higher-level skills; this policy would allow us to incentivise genuinely lifelong education. There is currently a messy and complex postcode lottery for most adult FE funding, usually with no maintenance support for students. This would allow adults to access education at any level, when it most suits them and their career aspirations. It would also provide strong incentives for FE and HE to work together and, with the right and simplified regulation, would incentivise a more tertiary approach to education.

But won’t this dilute what HE is for?

Almost all universities offer at least some vocationally or practice-based HE, evidenced in medicine and engineering, and higher and degree apprenticeships are on offer at the vast majority. Working across FE as well as HE is a difference of level and culture, but ought to enhance rather than dilute the prestige and impact of HEIs. Enabling genuine partnership between HE and FE would give space for parity of esteem between ‘academic’ and ‘technical’ education, allowing more crossover between the two pathways, and going some way to removing the ‘snobbery that looks down on vocational education’.

As a sector, we are champions for the transformational power of education and lifelong learning. Not only as a vehicle for skills development but for the wider value that a culture of learning brings to our communities. There is much to offer from a tertiary approach in solidifying a commitment to learners at all stages of their education, whilst seeing growth and excellence in our institutions.

There is clear learning from existing tertiary models in England and the Welsh approach, and HEIs have the opportunity to influence the direction of travel. Our nature of partnership and regional commitment positions us well to drive the narrative on future education policy, working alongside FE providers and local government to achieve this both now and with future governments.  

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1 comment

  1. Gavin Moodie says:

    Australia has had 5 successful dual sector universities since the 1990s and now has 6, while the experience in England, South Africa and elsewhere has been more mixed:

    Neil Garrod and Bruce Macfarlane (2009) (editors) Challenging boundaries. Managing the integration of post-secondary education. Routledge, Taylor and Francis, New York

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