Our universities provide a good service, but it’s not flexible enough for the needs of everyone, says Paul Feldman

It’s known that FE colleges charge less for higher education courses than universities, even while they are faced with funding challenges on all fronts. So could colleges increase their provision of HE courses to create new or improved funding streams?

This is just one idea raised by a recent report published by the Higher Education Commission, entitled ‘One size won’t fit all: The challenges facing the office for students’.

Diversity and choice

The report looks at the landscape of alternative providers for HE, investigating the barriers, current structures and possible options for widening the UK’s offering. There is no denying that there is already an amazing vibrancy and diversity in our universities, but current funding structures are a serious barrier to opening it up to those who want or need to access learning in an untraditional way. By promoting standard three-year campus-based courses, we limit diversity and social mobility. So this may open the door for colleges.

Opportunities

The report certainly calls for providers to work more closely with employers to develop sandwich degrees and degree apprenticeships to support the industrial strategy. And it recognises that vocational courses offered in an FE setting are often more flexible, responsive and adaptable than those offered by HEIs because colleges are used to juggling competing demands from their students and local employers.

Many colleges already have HE provision, but relationships could be stronger

Of course, many colleges already have HE provision, but relationships could be stronger. There are many that have synergistic partnerships but there are also some with tensions, in which colleges feel their voice goes unheard. The report’s recommendation for a stronger relationship between colleges and universities, is something we fully support. Improving HE provision in colleges will benefit learners, colleges and ultimately the whole of the UK.

The report also specifically recommends closer partnerships between learning providers and small- and medium-sized employers to ensure that their skills needs are being met. This is another area where colleges are ideally placed to take a lead, knowing, as they invariably do, their local area’s business community inside out.

Digital infrastructure

In the ongoing search for ways to increase funding and ensure long-term viability, colleges need to focus on their strengths and develop what they’re good at. Already well used to meeting the needs of diverse local communities, most are equipped to provide tailored and flexible courses that meet their students’ needs in a variety of formats, and it won’t require huge investment to start to offer blended learning solutions and technology-enhanced approaches.

For one thing, FE colleges in the UK all already have a connection to the same high-speed Janet Network as universities, providing the reliability and high bandwidth necessary to enable high-quality teaching, learning and assessment. For example, seamless connectivity when moving between university and college buildings is hugely important for learning and something eduroam does.

Widening participation

FE colleges have an important role to play in widening participation. During the inquiry, the commission heard from providers who described how college-based learning encourages individuals from low-participating groups to consider studying HE courses, and gave evidence that a fair proportion who progress to an HEI later transfer back to college to continue their course because it feels more supportive.

Many colleges feel beleaguered in the current climate. But both the Higher Education and Research Act and now this new HEC report offer plenty of opportunities for FE providers to expand their offer and develop additional funding streams. The challenge is to ensure that new and more flexible programmes are aligned to best meet the needs of the students who will pay for them. And given degree apprenticeships won’t be student funded, colleges will need to adjust to meet the needs of students and employers alike.

Paul Feldman is CEO at Jisc, and a member of the Commission