Ian Pretty

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Competition between providers may be compromising skills education

_As part of our ongoing research into level 4-5 Higher Technical Education (HTE), much of which will fall under Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQ) branding, we have spoken to higher education leads at 15 of our colleges to help better understand the state of provision across Collab Group. This blog is the first of three specifically focussing on insight we have gathered from this phase of research.

It is no secret that competition between colleges and universities is at a high right now. This is becoming particularly apparent amongst traditionally ‘technical’ subjects and courses amid the Government’s ongoing skills agenda and accompanying reforms. However, our analysis of existing literature and data highlights that competition between HE and FE providers is proving harmful to the quality and geographical distribution of such courses. What's more, these findings go even further to suggest that competition is contributing to a significant reduction in student numbers across HTE courses specifically in the institutions best placed to deliver them.

The results from further research we have undertaken paint a bleak picture. 73% of the college leads we surveyed stated they felt competition had led to a reduction in HTE student numbers. To provide some perspective, an analysis of ILR data returns from 8 of these colleges revealed their HTE student numbers had dropped by around 51% between 2015/16 and 2019/20, 20% higher than the average decline in this period..Moreover, 87% felt that universities represent their main competition in the HTE space, compared to only 13% who see other colleges as their key rivals. This is somewhat surprising given that technical and vocational education is not typically considered a strength for universities but sits firmly within the remit of what colleges are designed to deliver. Whilst it is common for universities and colleges to compete for the same students, this is usually because they offer different kinds of courses, for instance, higher apprenticeships versus degrees.

The eruption of this rivalry can be partially attributed to long-term changes in the behaviour of universities. Increases in numbers of foundation years, rising instances of unconditional offers, the lowering of entry requirements, and removals of student caps during the pandemic have put a great deal of pressure on colleges. Indeed, some have remarked that it is now easier to get into university than a college in many cases. Nevertheless, uptake in HTE courses is arguably suffering for more specific reasons. It is important to understand that colleges are almost always forced to partner with universities to deliver courses at L4-5, as few have the power to award these qualifications themselves. However, universities are hesitant to allow partner colleges the ability to offer courses that rival their own. As a result, there is evidence that universities have been preventing colleges from offering particular courses. Moreover, some colleges have indicated they are having to drop particular subject areas for HTE courses due to low take-up resulting from local universities offering similar courses.

So why are universities attempting to compete with colleges in an area that is traditionally not their forte? Well, it appears universities are increasingly looking at the L4-5 space as a means to supplement their diminishing revenues elsewhere. For instance, declining international student numbers may be offset by increased provision at L4-5. Additionally, some colleges feel that universities are looking to attract more students from traditional education cold spots or underrepresented backgrounds to improve their performance as enablers of social mobility.

On the whole, it would appear relationships between universities and colleges are on a downward trend. In the case of colleges, being forced into competition with much larger institutions that hold power to determine which courses they can and cannot provide, places them in a very precarious position. Nevertheless, there are signs of a route to improvement in some cases. Many colleges are increasingly seeking validation partnerships with universities outside of their locale, as the risk of damaging competition here is much lower. There are also some early signs that some neighbouring universities and colleges are seeking to develop more collaborative relationships with one another by establishing of workings groups and forums involving principals and vice-chancellors.

Regardless, if the Government is committed to the skills agenda it must be on the front foot to prevent excessive competition. Otherwise, there is a real risk that students won’t have access to appropriate vocational and technical education vital for delivering skills the economy needs.

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