The government’s white paper Students at the heart of the system envisages a broader, more responsive higher education landscape in which further education colleges play a full part, alongside higher education institutions and alternative providers, in meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse body of students. The White Paper notes the distinctive contribution of college-based higher education: “colleges have displayed particular strengths in reaching out to non-traditional higher education learners, including mature and part-time students”.

The government has asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to implement reforms to diversify the higher education system, among them the redistribution of student places through the core and margin policy. The aim is to increase student choice and ensure access to higher education providers offering a high-quality education and value for money. For 2012-13, just over half of the 20,000 ‘margin’ places have been awarded to 155 further education colleges, of which 65 are not currently directly funded by HEFCE.

HEFCE has been working closely with these colleges, and with the Association of Colleges and other stakeholder groups, to ensure that they are properly supported in the coming academic year. We welcome the opportunities that this brings, for students and for the sector. We also recognise that these changes are not without their challenges, for us and for those working to provide excellent higher education.

The core and margin process is not simply about redistributing a number of full-time higher education places. We need also to think about how we engage effectively with both a larger number and broader range of providers, and to reflect on what we need to do to maintain appropriate levels of assurance in the use of public funds, while keeping the regulatory burden on institutions to a minimum.

Previously, it was perhaps too easy for us to compartmentalise ‘HE in FE’. We are working to ensure that our thinking about college-based higher education is an integral part of our policy development and implementation. This includes, for example, the evolution of the quality assurance system and the provision of information for prospective students.
We have already made important changes to the way we operate, targeting our funding to secure the greatest public benefit. For example, those FE colleges awarded places through the core and margin exercise will receive HEFCE funding to support their widening participation and retention activity in 2012-13. Our recent consultation on teaching funding sought views on how to support students with Level 5 qualifications (often gained in FE colleges) to progress to honours degrees.

We understand that for many FE colleges, higher education provision is an important, but small, part of the overall mix of their activities. We are keen to work with colleges delivering higher education to share experience and also, potentially, to seek collective solutions to the particular challenges of providing higher education in colleges.

The more diverse provider base imagined in the White Paper is not easily segmented, and may become increasingly varied as providers respond to the reform of the higher education system. This diversity is, and will remain, a key strength, but whatever business models are developed, the quality of the student experience must remain the priority.

HEFCE is aware that a number of universities and colleges are developing innovative new partnership models, but that in some places, the rhetoric of competition has led to tensions. This is perhaps to be expected, and the most effective universities and colleges will undoubtedly adapt to the challenges posed by these competitive forces.

The government has asked us to report in December on the impact of the reforms on students and the sector, and this will include a preliminary assessment of the impact of core and margin on HE-FE partnership arrangements. We want to retain the benefits of strong partnerships at the same time as delivering reforms to provide greater flexibility. Our emergent proposals for core and margin in 2013-14 take account of this. We will also be looking closely at how the redistributed places are filled – it is not in the student interest to have under-recruitment when there are limits on the number of places available.

The government has this week published its response to the White Paper consultation and the technical consultation on a new regulatory framework for higher education. In considering how we can best implement the next steps in the government’s reform programme, HEFCE’s efforts will be concentrated on working in partnership with students, universities and colleges, and other national agencies to ensure the effective stewardship of public funds, to reduce administrative burden wherever possible, and to maximise the potential of an increasingly diverse sector to provide opportunity, choice and excellence for all those who wish to participate in higher education.

Ed Hughes, Regional Consultant
Higher Education Funding Council for England