What does the Journey to a Million mean for colleges?

David Hughes CBE, Chief Executive, Association of Colleges (AOC)

The anticipated and ongoing growth in people wanting to study at higher levels is very welcome, but it is unlikely that the current pattern of opportunities will meet that demand so some big changes are needed. 

There is an argument that we simply need to build more universities in cold-spot areas and all will be well. The likelihood of it happening is slim, not least because the scale of investment is too ambitious in the current economic environment.

If new institutions are unlikely to be built, the focus has to move to how existing institutions can develop, grow and change to meet demand and what new offerings are needed to viably deliver what people want.

The distinctive offer of colleges

Colleges are in a unique position because they are providers of higher education as well as ‘providers’ of students for other HE institutions. They play a special role in access, widening participation and geographical spread and could do more with the right investment. 

Over 100,000 students study HE in over 180 colleges in England with most partnering in some way with universities for their awards, and 10 colleges have their own degree awarding powers. College HE students tend to be older and live locally, study part time and on vocational courses. They tend to be the students who would struggle to access full time residential bachelor’s degrees which remains the predominate offer in most universities.

Despite the strengths and attractiveness of residential degrees — they offer great life experience, learning and outcomes — the costs of simply increasing the numbers supported by income-contingent loans looks prohibitive. That means other forms of learning and types of higher education look set to grow faster than they have in recent years — more flexible, accessible, hybrid options, more standalone Level 4 and Level 5, higher and degree level apprenticeships, more articulation between institutions to allow 2 + 1 and 2 + 2 degree options.

FE and HE working together to widen participation

And let’s be clear that there are two compelling reasons for why we should do this. Firstly, because that diversity of offer is the best way to ensure the diversity of participants we need to aim for. Access, participation and achievement in HE is still too narrow and too exclusive and doing things differently is an important part of changing that. Secondly, though, our country needs that diversity of offer and participant if we are to achieve the economic growth that the Prime Minister is promising. Meeting the labour market needs across the economy requires change. It will not be sufficient to continue with the patterns of participation we have now. 

If I’m right, that we need to grow those options, then we also need to secure the good relationships that already exist between colleges and universities, build on them and make them more stable. This will require government to adapt the regulatory, financial and incentives frameworks to help foster long-term collaboration. We need a more joined-up set of policies which link reforms at Level 3 (and below) with the Lifetime Loan Entitlement and we need co-construction of new offers and pathways for students and for employers to meet their needs and to grow overall participation to meet demand.

Cultivating a place-based focus

We cannot only look to government, though. College and university leaders need to step up as systems leaders too, with an eye on the wider impact their institutions can and will have by working together. This is not about diverting from the ‘day job’ because those deeper, stronger relationships between colleges and universities will be based in each being true to its mission, celebrating and understanding their differences. A true place-based focus on widening participation and access for young people and adults from across our communities requires stronger collaboration.  

Across the UK there are many examples of how this can work, so we know it is possible. Many universities already know that working with colleges takes time, investment and humility, but they also know that it pays off for students, communities and the economy. 

Ready to support new pathways and provide skills

A more diverse offer to a more diverse population will present challenges – timings, information, access, support for applicants will all be more complex. New technology should help, and the UCAS Hub and UCAS’s established presence is a great starting place for us to build on, together.

For colleges this is an enormous opportunity to grow their offer at Level 3 and above, supporting new pathways for learners and partnering with employers to make sure that they have the people with the skills they need. Colleges are well-placed to offer the teaching that leads to new Level 4 and 5 qualifications and the experience for adults who want to achieve a degree but who need the extra support and care that a college can offer.

There is no lack of aspiration or talent in FE and HE, there are great examples of colleges and universities working together and UCAS is thinking ahead — all ingredients that make me optimistic that together we can make progress to a different pattern of higher learning for more people from more communities.

David Hughes CBE

Chief Executive, Association of Colleges (AOC)

David Hughes is Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, representing and supporting further education colleges to fulfil their role as anchor institutions, supporting over 2 million students each year. He was awarded a CBE for services to further education, particularly during the Covid-19 response.  

David has worked in post-16 education for over 25 years, including a decade as a senior civil servant. Before that he worked in Australia and the UK in community development, regeneration, welfare, employment and social housing.  

David holds several Board positions including with the World Federation of Colleges and Polytechnics and the Bell Foundation.