Whilst the graffiti sprayed on Westminster walls during student protests in December has long since been removed, (although one stubborn proclamation of “this is NOT a riot” remains) debate has somehow remained feverish throughout the long wait for the government’s plans. Nonetheless, not a great deal in yesterday’s White Paper was likely to surprise.
The remedies proposed to the well rehearsed problems with student numbers are imperfect, but it is positive that institutions will need to compete for an estimated 1 in 4 places, as opposed to none. Also to be welcomed is the government’s endorsement of the role of Further Education Colleges (FECs).
However, the focus when it comes to FECs is on their role in providing value for money and traditional bachelors degrees. This risks continuing to neglect important, but poorly understood work below the level of the degree, with a strong vocational focus, courses such as Foundation Degrees or the Higher National Diplomas favoured by the engineering sector.
These courses provide a clear link to employment, often undertaken on the job and paid for by employers and there is significant employer input in their content and design. They provide a key link with other elements of the government’s education policy. Last week, the FE minister John Hayes announced the greatest increase in apprenticeship numbers ever but only 6% of apprentices go on to access higher education. Whilst apprenticeships at lower levels may be valuable in their own right, it is vital that vocational learners (more likely to be from lower socio economic backgrounds) have clear routes to progress. If higher education is to impact on social mobility we must move away from an obsession with access to Oxbridge, and encourage and allow the expansion of vocational, work based higher education.
Colleges can play a key role in this, but only if they are allowed autonomy. Most are tied to partner universities who validate their courses and this risks restricting student choice as universities will have a key say in what courses colleges offer, and for what price. The government has taken important steps to remedying this by allowing colleges to work with the OU and awarding bodies, but this still leaves colleges dependent on an external partner. This restricts their ability to react swiftly to the demands of local employers.
The government ought to give even more autonomy to colleges – encouraging more to gain the power to award Foundation Degrees independently, and giving the best colleges the power to validate the work of local partners. The White paper rejects this for the time being. This is a mistake.
Finally, the welcome ability for institutions to expand when charging less than £7,500 could mean the expansion of shorter, vocational programs. However, there is a chance that colleges (and Universities who in fact provide a majority of these courses) may take the easy route and offer traditional bachelors programs which might be perceived as easier to maintain and easier to ‘sell’ to students, fixated with the traditional model of three years, full time study for a bachelors degree.
This would be disappointing and would mean a missed opportunity for higher education to play a vital role in meeting the emerging needs of employers as we seek economic growth. The government should therefore consider having a focused policy for short vocational courses, perhaps allowing them to expand even faster than other provision, but at least ensuring that the current numbers of students on these courses is maintained.
Student choice must be based on a diversity of providers, the government recognises this. But, perhaps more importantly it should be based on a diversity of provision – if all institutions offer is a traditional model of higher education, students and the economy may miss out on the ‘missing link’ courses that could do so much for social mobility, and meeting the needs of employers.