Only nine colleges currently have the power to award degrees. Stephen Howlett believes this needs to the change for the good of the learners

Rarely does a week pass without a story appearing in the media about the skills crisis facing industry in the UK.

A recent report from the Lords’ economic affairs committee highlighted the fact that that we have “too many biology and history graduates” and not enough people with “technician-level STEM skills”.

I completely agree that we need more focus on skills in our education system – but I’m an advocate of higher education and don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive. It’s encouraging, for example, to see more and more companies are recognising the value of degree apprenticeships.

The skills crisis won’t be solved by encouraging young people to scrap their university plans. Higher-level skills and learning are crucial to a successful economy, and indeed to social mobility.

So rather than discouraging young people from university and degrees, we need to focus on making sure our higher education provision is accessible, relevant and meets the needs of businesses. There is no doubt that FE colleges offering HE provision are in the very best position to do this.

With strong employer links and a focus on work placements, colleges tend to offer a more practical approach to learning – while equipping their students with the specific higher-level knowledge associated with a degree. There are often more flexible study options on offer at colleges, with part-time and fast-track degrees available, making HE learning more accessible to many more.

It opens up many more progression opportunities for young people

And it is for this reason that I believe more “HE-within-FE” providers should be striving to earn degree-awarding powers. Most colleges depend on their relationships with local universities to administer and award the actual degrees. Apart from not being particularly cost effective, this set-up can fail to recognise and celebrate the high quality of HE provision at the college itself.

Being able to award degrees undoubtedly validates the quality of an organisation’s HE provision. From quality assurance to raising the college’s profile, it’s an important reputational marker.

A student who has studied the majority of their degree at a college, but who graduates at a nearby university, might lose their relationship with the college. They will identify as a graduate from their university as opposed to the very institution that has worked with them for three or more years.

The needs of employers must not be forgotten either. Devolution will change the way educators respond to skills needs in a particular region – there will no longer be a one-size-fits-all solution.

Educators need flexibility. With its own degree-awarding powers, an FE college will be able to adjust, amend and create new courses to meet the requirements of local and national businesses. When relying on a partner university, such validation can be time-consuming with the need to meet two sets of objectives.

Of course, excellent partnerships with other educational institutions will remain vitally important. I myself witness first-hand the very many benefits that come from good working relationships between schools, colleges and universities. It opens up many more progression opportunities for young people, fitting with individual requirements and aspirations. This should and would not need to change if a college were permitted to award its own degrees.

Currently just nine colleges in the country have degree-awarding powers – seven at foundation level and only two with full-taught degree status. This doesn’t reflect or recognise the high quality of HE provision that is offered at so many others, which are making higher-level learning so much more accessible to local communities.

Education is key to social mobility, and FE colleges are on the forefront. The outstanding job they are doing to support this (in what is a pretty hostile environment) should be recognised celebrated.

Gaining these awarding powers is not easy and takes years. However, I have no doubt that by doing this, FE colleges would be able to strengthen and expand successful HE provision.