Caroline Neville, Senior Policy Adviser, BIS Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable
Debate surrounding the introduction of FE loans for adult learners has been a prominent part of the sector in recent months.
And at the Association of Colleges’ (AoC) Annual HE in FE Conference at Holiday Inn London Kings Cross last month it was no different.
After all, the impact of the system, introduced for the 2013/14 academic year, with learners applying from next March if they are over 24 and studying at level 3 or higher, on a students’ progression into higher education is somewhat unknown.
This unfamiliar territory was addressed at the conference by Caroline Neville, senior policy advisor at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) – although she assured delegates that work is being carried out to align the HE and FE systems.
She said: “If you going to have to take a loan out for your Level 3 and Level 4 and then you’re going to go on and secure other responsibilities in terms of HE loans, that might put you off.
“We don’t yet know the impact, but there has been an enormous amount of work I have to say.
“I very often sit next to the lead on loans in further education who works hand in glove with HE colleagues to try to make sure the two systems are aligned.
“They are not the same. But there are important considerations to ensure you haven’t got a loan system for FE that is totally different in its criteria for HE.
“There has been research in terms of focus groups and lots of research face-to-face and survey research on when the policy is explained, what would your decision be? It’s only research but it has been encouraging.”
Mrs Neville said ministers have asked for Access to HE enrolments to be “very closely” monitored by the Department, particularly “because it’s aimed at mature students to see if there’s an impact on enrolments”.
She also said that a task group has been set up to monitor the “unintended consequences” of the introduction of FE loans.
Sir Alan Langlands, Chief Executive, HEFCE Andy Youell, Director of Standards and Development, HESA
“Very interestingly, after years of decline, the last couple of years, certainly two years, enrolments to Access have had a 22 per cent increase I think.
“I accept the recession and all of those things will mean more people may come to college, but you would want to continue to support Access,” she added.
The subject was also addressed by the Business Secretary, Dr Vince Cable, who described the FE loan system as “breaking new ground”.
He added: “We don’t know how it’s going to work.
“But I think it’s important in principle to recognise that people dong vocational training at that level should be treated in the same way as those doing an academic degree and that will involve over the next couple of years.”
Away from FE loans, another discussion point at the conference was the core and margin places.
Last month, Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) announced that more than half of student places, with tuition fees of less than £7,500,had been handed to FE colleges.
A total of 20,000 were divided between 190 universities and colleges – with 9,643 places distributed between 35 higher education institutions (HEIs) and 10,354 places between 155 FE colleges.
Although Sir Alan Langlands, the chief executive of HEFCE, could not say how many places would be available in the future, he did confirm that the system is “not just for Christmas.”
He said: “The margin for this year, the redistribution of 20,000 students, is not somehow just a pulse that will move through the system and stop.
“This is forever. So my takeaway message is core and margin 12/13 is not just for Christmas, it’s something to take into the future.”
Dr Cable also brought up the subject during his conference address, when he said: “What we have tried to do in government is to try to free up the higher and further education system from regulatory controls at the centre.
“One of the mechanisms is the core margin which is taking places away from higher education institutions and opening them up to bids from some universities, the lower end of the cost range, and FE colleges.
“This year was the first experience of that.”
There are contradictions in the current policy environment in higher education”
Discussions at the conference also evolved around the need for HE and FE to work with each other, despite areas of competition.
Sir Langlands said: “The current changes and uncertainties in HE and FE policy do give rise to tensions.
“We have a strong and a diverse tertiary education system in this country and we need to work through these tensions.
“Sometimes that means competition at the boundary between higher and further education and other times that means collaboration.”
He later added: “The job of HEFCE and the other national agencies is that HE in FE has to be handled on a level playing field with other provision.
“That doesn’t always come naturally.
“There are contradictions in the current policy environment in higher education and contradictions in the boundary between HE and FE.
“I guess the overall message is let’s not to be too fussy in just patrolling these boundaries but try to get across these boundaries,” he said.
Mrs Neville, meanwhile, described “higher vocational education” as a “developing and important area”, adding: “Developing in it has a long history…and important in terms of the nation’s needs; the needs of the economy, balancing the economy, and social mobility.”
Mrs Neville also said that the recent HE White Paper was “the first time that further education was mentioned in a significant way”.
She said: “HEFCE’s publications have been very high profile in terms of further education’s role.
“White Papers have tended to be about universities and of course this was too, but it also made that very strong point about diversity of provision going forward and the role of further education was acknowledged.”
Dr Cable said the HE in FE “issue is an important one” for two reasons.
He said: “It relates to something I’ve been committed to since I took up this job and that’s breaking down the boundaries between higher and further education and between academic and vocational, although they are not exactly the same issue, they overlap to some degree.
“There was an unfortunate apartheid in post school education, a sense of hierarchy that I thought was unhealthy, and what we are trying to do is re-balance and give vocational education its proper value and further education its proper value.
“Part of that is ensuring the boundary between higher and further education becomes blurred.”
He added: “We want to build in that flexibility into system.
“Many FE colleges are very innovative and thinking of new ways of delivering, taking into account cost convenience and types of pupils, and all my experience in this job is that FE colleges in general are extraordinarily exciting and innovative places and I always get uplifted when I visit one at the things that are happening.”
Another key point of the conference was discussed by Andy Youell, the director of standards and development at Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA), who gave an update on the Key Information Set (KIS), which will be implemented from September.
He said: “The KIS is a key part of the government’s strategy in terms of opening up the market; providing potential students with objective information to inform decision making.
“Now that students are at the heart of the system and the funding is determined on where the student goes, a student needs solid reliable information on which to base their investment decision.”
He added: “As things currently set out, the KIS should be generated for every undergraduate course of more than one full-time equivalent (FTE); so it can be full-time and it can be part-time courses but anytime that lasts for more than one FTE.”
Tracking progression of apprentices to HE
New research is being used to monitor and track the progression of apprentices into higher education (HE).
Led by the University of Greenwich, the research is funded by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and comes on the back of previous research which has looked at students from 2005/06 and beyond.
Speaking during a breakout session at the conference, Hugh Joslin, project director at the university, said: “Progression rates for vocational learners and apprenticeships are low.
“HEFCE invested millions in lifelong learning networks and in Aim Higher to try and raise progression rate of non-traditional students.
“Some headway has been made, but when we look at progression rates of apprenticeships it’s a good news story, but we still need to do a lot of work.”
The project takes four cohorts of learners and looks at those progressing directly into HE the next year, or leaving it a year or even another year.
Previous studies have suggested the progression rate from FE to HE is around six per cent, but Mr Joslin said: “What we have found for the 2005/06 cohort, tracked over four years, that figure is 13.1 per cent.
“Signs are, when we track again this year and have another four years, that will be increased again – it’s very positive.”
He also explained the North East has the highest rate, with 16.3 per cent progressing to HE, while East of England has the lowest, with nine per cent going into HE in the four years after completing apprenticeships.
Meanwhile, 20 per cent of apprentices who progress into HE live in disadvantaged areas, compared to 15 per cent of young HE entrants. Mr Joslin said: “That gives an important message about social mobility.”
Behind these figures there has been a backdrop of increasing participation in Advanced Level apprenticeships – up 36 per cent between 2005 and 2009.
Despite this, the progression rate is encouraging, with a real terms increase of 24.5 per cent, which “is a positive message about opening up the pathways”, Mr Joslin explained.
Funding for the research has been extended to track the 2009/10 cohort into HE in 2010/11.
The university is also “looking backwards” to see how apprentices have progressed from Level 2 to Level 3, while it will also look at more fields, breakdowns of location and HE in FE.
Hugh Joslin, project director at University of Greenwich