Challenging the higher Vs further education false divide

Chris Hale

Chris Hale

Director of Policy
Universities UK

In his speech to university leaders at the Universities UK annual conference on 4 September, the higher education and science Minister Sam Gyimah underlined the need to challenge the false divide between higher education and further education.

This was a significant intervention, highlighting the need to go beyond this outdated and simplistic distinction. A new piece of research commissioned by Universities UK reinforces this message.

The research highlights how higher education (HE) and further education (FE) are working together with employers – in innovative and diverse ways – to provide joined-up routes to higher level skills, for learners on more vocationally and technically focused programmes, as well as traditional, academic routes.

These partnerships are working to meet skills needs in specific sectors and regions. And to ensure that courses are industry-relevant and that they provide clear progression routes and opportunities to learn flexibly.

This report is timely, given the current political and policy debates about skills and higher education funding. The government's review of post-18 education and funding in England will have a strong focus on how we can create a joined-up and responsive tertiary system that meets the skills needs of the country, addressing issues such as the decline in flexible learning and filling the skills gap at levels 4 and 5.

The significant drops we have seen in part-time and older learners should worry us if we are concerned about upskilling, reskilling and work-based learning. A recent report by Universities UK highlights how rapidly workforce needs are shifting across all sectors. The example in the report of University Campus St Albans (UCSA), a joint venture between University of Hertfordshire, Oaklands College and employer groups demonstrates how higher education and further education coming together can help address these challenges.

The partnership provides local employers with the opportunity to upskill and reskill their existing employees. UCSA students study a University of Hertfordshire part-time honours degree, which is delivered at both Oaklands College and the University of Hertfordshire. Degrees are offered in business, leadership and construction. Students are usually in employment and most have been out of education for a long time – the majority aged between 30 and 55. Numbers on the courses are small, and there are opportunities for flexible and accelerated provision that meets student and employer needs.

Challenges of skills shortages at level 4 and 5 are well documented and an area of concern for employers. The post-18 review will no doubt examine this issue and how the gaps can be filled, but progression to and from these routes is also important.

University of Birmingham are collaborating with University College Birmingham (UCB) and South & City College Birmingham to create a single system to encourage progression to higher level skills in engineering. The programme is targeted at non-traditional students – those who would not come through the usual STEM A-Level route on to an engineering degree. The aim is to progress students who might normally leave education at Level 3 through to degree level, also playing an important role in supporting access to education, progression and good student outcomes.

There are many similar examples throughout the report, highlighting important factors and challenges. This will be useful for those institutions interested in embarking on such partnership or capitalising on existing relationships. For policy makers, encouragement and growth of these relationships can bring real benefits.

The solution for stimulating more of these kinds of partnership shouldn't, however, be one that is structural or forced. Each sector (HE and FE) will continue to have its distinct offer and forcing top down collaboration or trying to create a single tertiary funding and regulatory system is unlikely to succeed.

What we can see from this work is that the partnerships are diverse, they are strongly rooted in regional and sectoral skills needs, and have emerged out of pre-existing relationships. The challenge will be how opportunities to build these partnerships can be unlocked.

The cases in this report include some of those partnerships that have bid to become Institutes of Technolgy (IoTs). This has provided a real stimulus, but the overall funding pot for IoTs is limited. Some have also been stimulated through the HEFCE (now OfS) Catalyst Fund in England. Scaling up programmes or joining up and coordinating across funding streams within the tertiary system would have the potential to provide greater clout.

Intelligence gathering on skills needs is also important for these partnerships, but this can be resource intensive for employers and education providers to do this in isolation. The new Skills Advisory Panels being established in England, to assess the need for skilled workers in each region, present an opportunity here.

Overall, from this study, it feels like there is a huge opportunity to unlock this potential growth area.

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