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As the Association of Colleges prepares to debate the effect of planned government cuts in FE funding at its annual conference, AoC President and Principal of New College Durham John Widdowson warns that a substantial impact will also be felt in higher education.
Much has already been written about the potentially fundamental impact of cuts to college budgets which are likely to be announced in next weeks' spending review. The discussion has rightly concentrated on how colleges themselves will be effected and the measures they may have to take to survive.
Colleges are also about to go through a process of local area reviews which will look at the provision of post-16 education and training. The outcome of these reviews could herald the most radical shake up of the further education (FE) sector since incorporation in the early 1990s.
Although the discussion to date has centred on the impact on colleges themselves it seems inevitable that other organisations, particularly universities, will be affected. At the same time, a report by Policy Exchange called “Higher, Further, Faster, More” (see HEi-know Briefing report 265) has called on the Government to redirect £500m from universities grant funding into Further Education. This shines a bright light on the funding gap which now exists between colleges and universities.
Colleges offer their own Higher Education courses but even more of their students choose to continue their studies at a university, with over 30 per cent of entrants aged under 19 coming from sixth form or FE colleges. Whilst many colleges continue to prepare students for higher study by offering A Levels, an increasing number of students choose to enter higher education with a vocational qualification.
UCAS has already indicated the impact this trend may have on low entry tariff institutions with a potential "double whammy" as the number of high grade students reduces and fewer of them achieve high grades at A level. Coupled with the declining demographic in this age group, some universities already face a challenge in maintaining student numbers as the number of school leavers declines. This could be made greater as colleges absorb the impact of further budget cuts.
Colleges will react to the cuts in different ways, and the risks for universities could also be substantial. Many colleges will look to ensure that their provision is as cost effective as possible. This will inevitably mean that more specialist courses often with smaller (uneconomic) group sizes may be discontinued. For some higher education (HE) courses the supply of suitably qualified students could dry up.
Even more popular courses will not be immune as colleges respond to an adverse financial situation by reducing course hours and subject choice. Additional studies aimed at preparing students for university, especially in more vocational areas, will be at risk. Mature students could be in an even worse position as the Adult Skills Budget looks likely to bear the brunt of the cuts and maintenance loans replace grants.
Of course it is wrong to see the impact solely in financial terms. Colleges play a major role in widening participation in HE, supporting social mobility and individual career development. Over time the number of students from non-traditional backgrounds could diminish. The decline in part time students since the introduction of higher fees may prove to be a significant warning which if unheeded could be repeated.
Reforms to the A Level system have already been announced and although it is too early to tell what impact they may have, some commentators have predicted a move away from them towards more vocational alternatives. Qualification reform is also proposed for the Technical and Professional (vocational) routes potentially reducing the number of options available.
However, for colleges there may be some reasons for limited optimism. The Government has announced a target of three million apprenticeships. Colleges already provide over a third of these and plan to do more including at higher level. As more young adults are encouraged to undertake high quality apprenticeships, their appetite for traditional three year degrees may diminish with the attraction not only of lower debt, if any, but also the skills and experience valued by employers. The challenge for some universities will be to adjust their provision and funding models to cope with this.
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