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College mergers matter more to universities than you think

The area reviews of post-16 education and training have caused a commotion in FE and colleges sector. Julian Gravatt looks at the knock-on effect on the HE market, admissions, and regulation.
This article is more than 4 years old

Julian Gravatt is Assistant Chief Executive at the Association of Colleges where he works on in funding, finance, pensions and regulation issues on behalf of FE and sixth form colleges in England.

The publication of the first thirteen reports of the ‘area reviews’ of post-16 education and training institutions by the Department for Education is (finally) imminent.

Begun well over a year ago, the process was begun by BIS in an attempt to rationalise and reshape the college sector in England. This radical attempt to create more sustainable colleges will have many knock-on effects for English higher education, as they have had in recent years in Wales and Scotland.

University-college mergers: barriers and insulation

The reports shortly to be published concern about 40% of colleges in England and a large proportion of the country. Despite the vast scale of the exercise, only two mergers between a university and a college are being proposed: in Southampton, and in Bolton and Bury.

Early in the process, it looked like there would be many more university-college mergers. Although no university formally participated in the reviews, several vice chancellors made pitches to their local colleges. Mergers presented a chance for universities and colleges to share services, to join forces on apprenticeship development, and to work together for the benefit of the local city or region. This narrative resulted in three university-college mergers in Wales only a few years ago, but there will be much fewer (as a proportion) in England. There are a number of reasons why.

The English university and college sectors are too far removed from each other regarding regulation and focus; much more than in many other countries. Area reviews have forced HEFCE to examine and navigate the many and varied challenges for university-college mergers in details. According to a circular released only a few weeks ago, the “regulatory implications of merger or acquisition involving a HEFCE funded provider” include a possible review to see if the university merging will still have 55% of its FTE students studying at higher education level. What happens if the answer is less than 55% is still not clear.

England has a slightly odd university system, with more full-time and residential students, and more research focused, selective and internationally top placed institutions than our continental European comparators. One price of this oddity is that universities are thickly insulated from the rest of the education system, including FE colleges.

The missing school sixth forms

The biggest omission from area reviews has been the lack of involvement from school sixth forms, who have escaped the same scrutiny given to colleges. This is partly due to the challenge of scale. The initial area review timetable was ambitious – in fact far too ambitious – and was only covering 330 colleges in 37 reviews over eighteen months. Including over 2,000 school sixth forms and a growing number of university technical colleges. Such upheaval was too much for BIS (and now DfE) to stomach. The omission will have significant implications for university recruitment.

Government policy in recent years has promoted choice and competition through the creation of new and different types of institution. This has been done quite recklessly, particularly when both the school population and budgets are contracting. 169 new academy and maintained sixth forms were opened between 2010 and 2015, but the total number of 16 to 18-year-olds enrolled in schools has been static. Average cohort sizes were already small and have declined further. Despite the policy to open new school sixth forms, DfE offers little in the way of advice to make them work and has never researched their effectiveness.

England’s 2,100 schools and 330 colleges send more than 260,000 young people to university every year. There are broadly equal numbers from each sector, though UCAS (oddly) publishes very little data on the institutional origin of students progressing into higher education. Colleges range from sixth forms teaching more than a thousand Maths A-level students each year, to general FE colleges specialising in technical education. Area reviews, for all their faults, have forced every college to explain what they do and why they do it. When universities recruit students from a state-funded English college, they will, at the very least, know that the leadership of that institution has spent some time in the past twelve months refining their mission and proactively focusing their efforts to improve the learning environment.

When it comes to school sixth forms, such assurance isn’t there. DfE is freezing funding for full-time courses, causing a growing gap between expectations and resources. Despite this, too many schools have no clear strategy apart from trying to hold on to their better GCSE candidates. Ask why the school has a sixth form and the answer appears to be that it looks better for parents or that staff enjoy teaching at that level; whether it’s in the best interests of the student is another matter. Failures in sixth forms will hinder efforts to widen participation and narrow educational inequalities. There is an obvious need to rationalise: to create educationally and economically sustainable institutions that can be engines of social mobility. Sixth form colleges and FE colleges already perform this role and have refined their approach during the area review process. Schools with sixth forms exempt from area reviews and quite-so-close scrutiny may have not.

Larger colleges

The original guidance for area reviews planned for fewer, larger colleges. This is happening in parts of the country, but perhaps more slowly than the government hoped. There has been a lot of talk about mergers, but the process has been far more complicated than anticipated because of the need to solve issues relating to bank loans, pensions and regulation. There have been eleven college mergers since the general election, but some of these were already underway before area reviews were begun. Another twenty to thirty college mergers may come, leaving the English college sector smaller in number but still not dis-similar to its position when the reviews started.

There will, nevertheless, be more colleges with larger numbers of higher education students. The new higher education regulatory environment will be harsh for colleges with small HE numbers, but more benign for those with a critical mass of higher learners. Overall, there will be more HE capacity outside universities. We can expect more bids for degree awarding powers, and the more established college ‘challengers’ will take a new form.

Area reviews have obsessed college leaders for the last twelve months, but for those outside further education, they’ve been a complete mystery. The coming reports will open the book on planned developments in more than a hundred colleges but will have important consequences for the entire higher education sector.

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