Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 53

Submission from the 157 Group



    — There is a public misconception of the role Further Education (FE) Colleges play in delivering A Level and Higher Level Qualifications which traditionally lead to University provision.— FE Colleges are more socially inclusive than their Sixth Form Counterparts, although the funding methodology discriminates against learners choosing to study in FE.— This funding differentiation impacts upon diversity and inclusion in Higher Education (HE).— Access for adults should be reviewed, with a guarantee of HE provision following on from successful completion of an Access being established.

    — An All Age Advice and Information Service would support routes to HE.

    — An open discussion on the nature of vocational and academic programmes should be held to prevent provision being pulled in too many directions.

    — Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) should be compelled to enter into formal relationships with the key local General Further Education Colleges (GFE's) in their locality.

    — FE providers, as the key players in their local communities, should be at the leading edge of the establishment of new HE Centres.


  1.  The 157 Group represents twenty six of the largest and most successful Further Education Colleges in the Learning and Skills Sector. We seek to influence policy development in education and related policy areas. The strength and expertise of our providers gives us both the capacity to act as an internal critical friend to key decision makers and to support the development of the sector as a whole. We do not see ourselves as a traditional "lobbying body" but rather an advice and opinion service.

2.  We are pleased to be able to offer evidence to the Select Committee on its Students and Universities Inquiry. 157 members deliver a significant amount of HE in FE provision which is well regarded both in terms of its quality and ability to reach out to individuals classed as non traditional HE participants. However for the purpose of this submission we have focussed upon the routes available to current and potential FE learners into traditional HEI's. This paper also seeks only to address the issues of admission included in the call for evidence as this is where The 157 Group have a significant contribution to make. It is also worth noting that, within 157 member colleges, we have a significant number of high profile individuals who have been involved in research on widening access. Many of these individuals have written extensively on the subject and would be happy to expand upon the key issues outlined briefly in this submission.

Key Issues

  3.  Despite public perception Further Education Colleges deliver almost half of all A Level provision in the United Kingdom. This fact is not reflected in either government policy or current funding arrangements. The frustration felt by many in the sector on viewing A Levels as the "gold standard" of education is matched by frustration within FE Colleges that the School Sixth Form or Sixth Form College is viewed as the "gold provider" of A Level provision.

4.  All evidence suggests that school Sixth Forms are less socially inclusive than FECs, and undoubtedly this impacts upon individual learner's ability to access Higher Education. General FE colleges have a higher proportion of entrants from lower socio-economic groups to HE (34%) compared to 25% in Sixth Form Colleges and 8% in private schools. The reality for many young people is that if they fail to reach five "good" GCSEs access to Sixth Form provision is denied, and with that the traditional route into HE. It is then often left to the college sector to deliver an appropriate curriculum offer for those young people that delivers on a wide range of aspirations from access to employment to further education. This can be an academic supported route, a vocational learning path or, in many cases, a combination of the two, Further Education Colleges are tremendously successful in delivering such provision. Nevertheless it is essential to take account of the fact that those young people who do not meet the traditional cut-off target, which we must not forget is almost 50% of all young people, are denied the traditional route into HE. It is worth noting for the record however that colleges are the provider of choice for many young people, including those who reach the "five good GCSE standard". These individuals choose to study in FE for a variety of reasons including access to a more adult environment, a broader provision offer and a "half way house" to the University learning environment. This is an extremely positive choice, but is affected, often without the learner in question being aware, of the relative positions, in the view of Universities, of their chosen providers.

  5.  This sense of inequality is further exacerbated by current funding arrangements. The majority of young people who fail to gain five good GCSEs are strongly tied to individuals and communities from lower socio economic groups. This in itself is undeniably tied to issues of race. BME students form a significantly large proportion of the college student community, in comparison with their school counterparts. By maintaining a significant funding gap between Sixth Form and FE provision, the funding method is having an additionally negative effect that runs counter to published policy aims across Government Departments. In effect we are pushing more money towards the children of the leafy suburbs than the children of the most disadvantaged communities in our society. The 157 Group welcomes the ongoing progress on closing the funding gap but feel far more should be done in the name of social justice.

  6.  Equally the school Sixth Form presumption does not assist FE providers in their role as key strategic partners in delivering the local agenda. In those areas where excellent FE provision exists, we believe that significant government resources are often wasted delivering economically unviable provision, through newly created Sixth Forms. The Sixth Form presumption should be lifted; with local intervention only being made to create such additional provision where the curriculum offer does not reflect demand or quality is not met.

  7.  In addition Sixth Form colleges should be encouraged to open up their recruitment practice reaching beyond their current and limited focus. This would encourage and empower more young people to enter well-funded institutions that provide a direct access to universities; however conscience this decision is at the time of enrolment.

  8.  Access to HE for adult learners is an additional and complicated area. Adult learners wishing to access HE are extremely likely to come through the FE route. Colleges provide an important stepping point, not only in providing relevant qualifications but also in building confidence and making connections with forms of support, for example possible funding routes. For the majority of adults who wish to go on to HE, they will chose to study locally and generally part time , owing, in part, to their own pressures and personal or family commitments. Increasingly evidence suggests that adult learners are more likely to complete a Foundation Degree locally and potentially seek to "top up" with a local HEI provider. The 157 Group believes that providing such routes for adults in HE is essential to both meeting the 50% target and widening the demographic of the HE population. We believe access course provision has been tremendously successful in widening and diversifying the HE population but are concerned by increasing evidence that students on successful completion of such a programme are being denied access to the partner HEI. We would call upon the Government to ensure that all those who have successfully completed Access to HE course are guaranteed a HE place.

  9.  Information and guidance is critical for both young people and adults in making sense of the qualifications landscape and how their choices will directly affect their ability to access HE. We would argue, therefore, that every information and careers service should be provided on a universal all age basis. This could effectively break down the instinct by many careers tutors in schools to advise young people to remain within the schools sector whether or not it is the most appropriate curriculum offer. An all-age service would additionally allow adults to access services through relationships with alternative sources that they are more likely to connect or engage within their day to day life with for example their children's schools, in a similar way that Sure Start Centres have had a positive effect on joining up the landscape of support for parents and signposting them to relevant provision.

  10.  Aim Higher is a valuable initiative, yet it lacks the drive, innovation and crucially the ability to connect with the very young people from disadvantaged communities that it seeks to target in the aim of reaching the 50% target. The 157 Group members are extremely successful in engaging with individuals from disadvantaged communities and strongly recommend that DIUS reviews its approach with guidance from practitioners delivering on the front line.

  11.  The 157 Group believe it is now time to have an honest discussion about how academic and vocational courses relate to each other, the "framework" of qualifications and access to Higher Education. The reality is that individuals studying vocational qualifications are significantly less likely to be accepted for a university place than those studying an A Level programme. Although things are clearly better in the Post 1992 institutions, this is perhaps unsurprising as programmes of vocational study may often follow on logically to courses traditionally run by Post 1992's, for example computer logistics or nursing. High level vocational courses however such as medicine law or engineering are still, almost universally, run in the Red Brick institutions that in reality, offer no vocational pathway. The Government should address the question of access in this context but also examine the purpose and core of vocational provision.

  12.  It is crucial that vocational courses are not pulled in too many directions. The sheer complexity of matching vocational and academic provision has not assisted in challenging the question of parity of esteem. If vocational provision is a quality product in its own right we should be rightly concerned if we only determine its validity by the proportion of traditional academic content it contains. This is not to say that we should be "dumming down" vocational curriculum, or removing core components such as English and Mathematics, but rather to say that vocational course should be allowed to be vocational, if they are to be highly valued by individuals, employers and universities alike.

  13.  We strongly believe that the solution for HEI's in expanding their intake, and ensuring that their intake is more diverse is the College Sector. HE providers should be compelled to enter into formal partnership arrangements with the local key FE provider in their area, to build a cross sector curriculum offer and make access to university a mainstream option for FE learners.

  14.  In addition we welcome "University Challenge" and the proposed establishment of HE Centres within areas that do not have a tradition of Higher Level Learning. We believe that it is colleges who, as the key strategic partners within their community should lead on the development of HE provision in the proposed areas. FE Colleges are generally accepted as the most responsive elements of the education system. Strong relationships with employers and key agencies through Local Area Agreements and Multi Area Agreements mean we are extremely strongly placed to deliver an offer that is responsive to community needs. In partnership with a HE institution and others we believe that we could act as the key interface between Schools and FE and FE and HE to ensure that we reached out to non traditional groups in the likely localities and as a result met the 50% target.

  15.  To conclude, Further Education Colleges are the key to increased and diverse access into HE provision. Whilst we believe we have a valuable role in developing in partnership localised HE provision, we also believe we are critical to meeting Government HE admissions targets, both on intake and diversity measures. To make this a reality funding arrangements, admission processes and partnerships with HEI's should work to assist Colleges in delivering this core societal aim rather than acting as significant barriers. Finally it is essential to remember that it is large FE Colleges who have had the most amount of success in reaching out to non traditional students in developing HE provision, a point that those developing "University Challenge" would do well take into account.

December 2008

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