What’s “higher education”?

Getting back to the fundamentals with HESA is always worth doing

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

When we look at national, and UK wide, higher education datasets there’s always a bit missing.

Specifically, the higher education that happens in further education settings is collected by a different body in each UK nation – each one uses different standards and definitions.

You may have heard, for example, of the Individualised Learner Record (ILR) collected by ESFA in England, but the Learning Aims Reference Service (LARS) is a new one on me. In Scotland, SFC collects the Further Education Statistics (FES), in Northern Ireland the responsible Department collects the Consolidated Data Return (CDR), whereas in Wales the government runs the Lifelong Learning Wales Record.

From the perspective of the experiences of higher education providers (who may have to submit data on these returns too) in England – at least – there is a DfE working group aiming to sort this particular tangle out. But the issue runs in both directions – FE colleges tend to be smaller and less well resourced than most universities, and you can bet that none of them are keen to suddenly start submitting data to HESA.

HESA – as you would expect – has their back. The plan is to extract the data that HESA needs to reflect the scope and nature of HE in FE from the stuff that is already submitted to the organisations named above.

Simple, eh?

If you are thinking that’s a problem solved then strap in, because your mind is about to be blown. We’re collecting data, in each case, pertaining to learners on higher education courses. But what actually is higher education?

On the HESA blog this morning the spectacular Tlyssa Plester dives into this issue in detail – the upshot being that higher education is defined slightly differently for different regulatory and statistical purposes across the four home nations. So just looking at primary legislation:

Then we get into the various other definitions – the National Careers Service reckons that it’s courses that you can do after the age of 18 (it isn’t). UCAS, wonderfully, defines higher education as something that you can apply to via UCAS. In terms of level of study we know higher education qualifications sit between levels 4 and 8 (or 7 and 12 in Scotland), but not everything at those levels is higher education – Plester gives the example of shorter, vocational, centrally awarded, courses – like a Pearson BTEC Level 5 Diploma in Therapeutic Counselling. If you are thinking that a lot of LLE-esque stuff could sit in either bucket too, you are not far wrong.

There’s designated courses, prescribed courses, recognised courses, fundable courses and (soon) credit-bearing courses (in two senses) – categories that exist to allow for what might broadly be described as exceptions to what might broadly be considered higher education.

Why does this matter

For completeness sake – HESA is plumping for the Government Statistical Services (GSS) definition… level 4 and above in England, Wales, and NI, level 7 and above in Scotland. It’s a “best fit” decision and a classic HESA compromise, but that’s not what I want the reader to take away from this.

What’s bugging me is that all of this is in flux. England, Wales, and Scotland are gradually moving towards a harmonised tertiary sector – the idea of similar funding levels for similar learning experiences is an animating factor, as is removing (or attempting to remove) the hierarchy that sees (academic) HE as superior to (vocational) FE.

But with funding and hopefully regulation converging, what’s the purpose of this distinction longer term? Are HE and FE different parts of the same elephant? Definitions are good – but it will be time, and policy, that tells in the end.

2 responses to “What’s “higher education”?

  1. Excellent blog, dk

    I prescribe a reading of Ron Barnett’s The Idea of Higher Education for all who seek to enter this territory!

    to;dr: its about radical change in the learner

  2. To bring together your two blogs of today I would draw attention to the excellent HEPI blog by Bahram Bekhradnia on the (then) Skills Bill (see https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2021/12/01/par-for-the-course-or-dumbing-down-the-intended-or-unintended-threat-to-higher-education-standards-posed-by-the-skills-bill/) which at a stroke defined all modules of higher education courses even when taken outside of that course, as higher education irrespective of the academic level. This is a significant blurring of the boundaries between further and higher education and one that went largely unnoticed.

    I would also note that the excellent OfS size and shape dashboards already do a lot of the work bringing together the two data sources in England although the creation of a UK wide consistent dataset is to be welcomed given the very different coverage of the Jisc records in the four nations of the UK.

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