Single funding system could resolve ‘tension’ between universities and colleges

A report jointly authored by the Civic Universities Network and the Independent Commission on the College of the Future says governments in the four nations of the UK can go further and faster to improve cooperation between HE and FE

The governments in the UK must institute unified funding and regulatory systems for post-16 education to help free universities and colleges from “years of unnecessary tension”.

That is one of the major conclusions from a significant new report on university and college collaboration, authored by figures working in further and higher education.

The Civic University Network, hosted by Sheffield Hallam University, and the Independent Commission on the College of the Future have published a report that calls for comprehensive long-term strategies for reform of post-compulsory education in the four nations of the UK.

Characterising the relationship between FE and HE in most areas of the UK as “limited, unbalanced, inhibited by a lack of trust”, the report says cooperation “struggl[es] to attract leadership time and resources alongside other pressures and priorities”. It adds that “both within and between sectors, institutions can be pitted against each other, locked in unproductive competition, whether as a result of government policy or funding choices or as a result of institutional cultures and behaviours”.

Along with single funding and regulatory systems in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the report argues the four executives in the UK should balance investment in FE and HE and standardise maintenance support, loans and grants for students. With the defining of “distinct but complementary roles”, ministers can help colleges and universities “avoid a turf war” over the delivery of education and training, the report says.

The report – Going Further and Higher: How collaboration between colleges and universities can transform lives and places – was published today (7 February). Its findings are the work of Philippa Alway and Lewis Cooper, from the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, and Natalie Day and Lizzie Morgan, from Sheffield Hallam University and the Civic University Network.

The report also makes recommendations for university and college leaders. Although positive personal working relationships develop in some corners of the country, all FE and HE leaders must to move to institute “whole institution” approaches, with clear roles and shared responsibilities. The authors also urge vice-chancellors and principals to agree networks of proximate institutions that “embrace local geography and specialisms” to work alongside employers and communities to build a “cohesive education and skills offer”, eradicating duplication and competition.

The report says these successful local networks of FE and HE institutions should prioritise “low-hanging fruit”, starting small in the early years and prioritising setting the terms of new partnerships. They should seek to build engagement with schools, sixth forms and job centres to improve careers guidance.

We must do better in learning from each other, and taking action to deliver better outcomes for learners, employers and our local communities
– Richard Calvert, Sheffield Hallam University

In England, the FE and HE sectors await the government response to the Augar report, which may initiate a redistribution of funding. The ongoing trial of short courses will underpin a roll-out of the lifelong learning entitlement, which ministers hope will incentivise post-18 FE study routes and upskilling. New Local Skills Improvement Plans, led by employer representative bodies, will develop plans for regional technical provision with local authorities, colleges and universities.

In Wales, the Tertiary Education and Research Bill, progressing through the Senedd, would bring all post-16 education under an umbrella organisation and dissolve the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (Hefcw). The new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER) in 2023. CTER will have responsibility for “strategy, funding and oversight” and act as a “single national steward of Wales’s tertiary education and research sector” and promote “life-long learning”, the Welsh government said in a statement.

In Scotland, the government at Holyrood responded to a review of tertiary education by the Scottish Funding Council with a promise to deliver its recommendations. The Scottish government seeks “accelerated, deeper collaboration” between universities and colleges. It backed nearly all the SFC’s recommendations, including calls for a single quality framework for HE and FE and outcome agreements that tie funding to the results of local networks of colleges and universities. The Tertiary Provision Pathfinders pilot will also seek to explore better forms of integrated education in each region of Scotland, the government agreed.

In Northern Ireland, curriculum hubs comprising the nation’s six colleges have seen each participant leading national provision in one or two specialisms. This has helped spread expertise and improve working between FE and HE. An ongoing review of higher education in further education seeks to address the decline in level 4-5 education in Northern Ireland. A new Skills Council will implement the nation’s skills strategy.

“It is clear that the four nations are on different stages of the journey, and some nations have a number of the features we describe,” the report concludes. “But each nation has much further to go to develop a truly integrated, coherent tertiary education and skills system and to ensure the intentions are ‘lived out’ at a local and regional level too. This is not happening consistently nor sufficiently at present.”

Richard Calvert, chair of the Civic University Network Partnership Group and deputy vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, said: “As we have found through this report, there are excellent examples of collaboration across FE and HE – but too often those examples are the exception rather than the rule. We must do better in learning from each other, and taking action to deliver better outcomes for learners, employers and our local communities.

“It is also important for governments to recognise that there are policy levers which can support collaboration, rather than encourage competition. A joined-up further and higher education sector across the UK could be transformative in redressing regional inequalities, delivering lifelong learning and underpinning the levelling up agenda.”

Read more: Lifelong learning ‘has never been more important for Wales’

Related news: Levelling up: FE, skills and R&D take centre stage in government white paper

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