The Association of Colleges’ (AoC) annual HE conference is one of the main opportunities in the year to consider the important role college-based higher education plays within the HE system. In the months ahead of a general election – where the provision of higher technical skills and cost of higher education seem set to play a major part – this was an excellent opportunity to hear from experts in the field, and from politicians, on the likely shape of colleges’ contribution to tertiary education in the coming years.

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OECD analysis shows England to be lagging behind its competitors when it comes to providing the higher level technical training required in many of today’s, and more importantly,  tomorrow’s jobs. Vince Cable has repeatedly called for parity of esteem between traditional academic routes and the more work-based post-compulsory education exemplified by the new wave of apprenticeship programmes.

Better options for technical skills education

Over recent months each of the major political parties has put their own spin on this, and whilst there may be debates about nomenclature – are they technical degrees, degree apprenticeships, higher apprenticeships? – essentially all are making the same point. There needs to be better options on the post school, ‘tertiary education journey‘, to help address the higher level technical skills needs for the 21st century.

At the AoC conference, opening up this space around professional and technical education and training, was described as akin to ‘opening the Secret Garden’. OECD evidence points to the release of pent up demand in many countries which attempt to address the absence of suitable options in this area.

This is particularly, though not uniquely, relevant to further education colleges. A key aspect of colleges’ distinctive contribution to the higher education system are their close links with employers, especially locally, accompanied by a flexibility to develop training across all levels which can respond to the needs of those employers. They would then appear well suited to offering higher apprenticeships which could combine work-based learning with recognised higher level qualifications.

Challenges for FE colleges offering higher level apprenticeships

The funding models are still unclear – a problem exacerbated by the very difficult financial settlement FE colleges have faced in the last five years. Reliance on validation of HE qualifications by universities reduces responsiveness – some colleges are now seeking greater autonomy in awarding  qualifications. Issues of parity of esteem will linger until the numbers going through new ‘technical’ routes are better balanced with those pursuing ‘traditional’ academic studies. Providing the opportunities for students to explore these different routes through tertiary education is a priority, and HEFCE will continue to work closely with BIS and the Skills Funding Agency to help develop new shared funding routes for higher technical education.

HEFCE has further strengthened its contribution to the work of FE colleges in delivering HE through the award, announced at the AoC conference, of £2.75m to support colleges to bring about a step-change in the development of enhanced scholarly culture and practice in college HE for the benefit of local employers, the college HE sector as a whole and students.

Very often, college HE students are drawn from the local community, and, with their generally smaller class sizes and local proximity, they are often well placed to cater for the needs of students who might otherwise not be in a position to benefit from higher education. Whilst this means that they make a strong contribution to the widening participation agenda, it heightens the need for colleges to look closely at how they measure the impact of any student opportunity funding they receive – a point not lost on delegates at today’s conference where there were repeated calls for this funding to be retained following the election.

Whilst that financial settlement is not within his gift, Vince Cable’s vision for the role of colleges clearly recognises this dimension of their work. He spoke of a dual mandate for colleges – meeting the challenge of the country’s technical skills needs and providing an important community role in localities – providing opportunities to those who might have missed out earlier in life.

As the delegates left the conference and returned to FE colleges in communities the length and breadth of the country that two part message was clear. Whatever the short term funding pressures, the commitment to serve the needs of both local employers and local students, and help both achieve their aspirations is paramount. Only then will the potential of tertiary education’s ‘Secret Garden’ be unlocked.