Skip to main content

NEWS: Universities and colleges must prioritise working together to address skills gaps and regional inequalities

07 February 2022

A new report calling for greater collaboration between colleges and universities has set out recommendations for governments and sector leaders to support regional priorities and deliver UK-wide economic recovery.

Today, the Civic University Network, the Independent Commission on the College of the Future and Sheffield Hallam University have published Going Further and Higher: How collaboration between colleges and universities can transform lives and places. With case studies and analysis from across the four nations of the UK, the joint report is a call to arms for the two sectors to work together.

The report argues that further and higher education must no longer be pitted against each other - both nationally and locally - if post-16 education and skills systems across the UK are to deliver on pressing societal challenges such as closing skills gaps, supporting economic recovery, and delivering on net-zero goals.

The report identifies how unequal investment and a lack of clarity on the role that universities and colleges play has led to years of unnecessary tension. It warns that post-16 education and skills systems can suffer from being too confusing and difficult to navigate for both students and employers and that competition between institutions exacerbates this.

It calls on colleges, universities and governments to commit to creating joined-up education and skills systems with a focus on shared responsibility for the sectors to deliver for people, employers and their places.

Amongst a number of key recommendations, the report calls on governments across the UK to commit to a more balanced investment and to define the distinct but complementary roles of colleges and universities through a new 10-year strategy.

Following extensive consultation and input from education leaders and policymakers from the four nations, the report provides a blueprint for more collaboration between institutions to support people, employers and communities. The recommendations apply to varying degrees across the four nations, with many of them inspired by existing practice and policy.

Recommendations for sector leaders, which focus on creating strong local networks:

  1. Agree the institutions who are involved in the network and embrace the local geography and specialisms that already exist.
  2. Develop a cohesive education and skills offer for local people, employers and communities built around lifelong learning, ensuring inefficient duplication and competition is reduced.
  3. Move beyond personal relationships and agree how the whole institution is involved in collaboration, with clear roles and shared responsibility for partnership.

Recommendations to governments across the four nations to build better education and skills systems:

  1. Set an ambitious 10-year strategy to ensure lifelong learning for all and to deliver on national ambitions.
  2. Balance investment in FE and HE to ensure the whole education and skills system is sustainably funded so that colleges and universities can work in the interests of their local people, employers and communities.
  3. Equal maintenance support across loans and grants for HE and FE students, regardless of age, personal circumstances, or route into education.
  4. Tackle the ‘messy middle’ by defining distinct but complementary roles for colleges and universities to avoid a turf war over who delivers various types of education and training.
  5. Create a single funding and regulatory body for the entire post-16 education and skills system in each nation to deliver more aligned and complementary regulatory approaches that will ensure smoother learner journeys.

The report also provides a number of UK-wide case studies of best practice for policymakers, institutions and sector leaders to learn from.

Sir Ian Diamond, Chair of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, said: “This report rightly highlights that universities and colleges are vital institutions offering transformational education and skills. If we are to face the long-term impacts of the pandemic and to drive a sustainable, inclusive economy, then it is clear they have to increasingly do this together.

The report marks a moment when the two sectors can commit to delivering on a bold joint mission for supporting people, productivity and places. I know from my time in both sectors that many leaders are driving the change needed to bring this to life. Through the work of the Commission we have drawn great learnings from practice and policy across the four nations. This report champions the best of what exists.”

Richard Calvert, Chair of the Civic University Network Partnership Group and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, said: “This report provides an opportunity for both sectors to come together and recognise our potential to make an even greater impact if we work in partnership. 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.”

Audrey Cumberford, Principal & CEO at Edinburgh College and member of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, said: “As the Principal of Scotland’s capital college, I know the impact that is possible when education and skills leaders collaborate for the good for their region. This report sets out the untapped potential of what colleges and universities can do together.

In Scotland we are increasingly operating in a coherent strategic policy environment, with strong recognition for the concept of a national tertiary ecosystem. Working more and more symbiotically has meant that we have established good practice in learner-focused articulation from college to university, which is rightly highlighted in this report.

Mark Huddleston, Director at jheSOLUTIONS Limited and formerly NI Commissioner for Employment and Skills, said: “Colleges and universities in Northern Ireland are integral partners for many businesses and their partnership only makes this more powerful. A vital feature of the future for both FE and HE systems is playing their part in supporting people and businesses with lifelong learning. This report brings to life how collaboration in delivering this must continue to come to the fore.”

Professor Ellen Hazelkorn, author of the review of the oversight of post-compulsory education in Wales and Commissioner and member of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, said: “Building a more seamless post-secondary education system has to be the direction of travel, mirroring the shifts other countries are taking to address long-standing societal and economic challenges.

Six years on from the review of the Welsh post-compulsory system, which I led, the Welsh government is moving ahead with mechanisms for a coordinated system of further and higher education. Today’s report recognises the progress being made in Wales, and across the UK, and identifies where the policy needs go further to ensure that the education and skills system keeps up what the world needs.”

David Hughes, Chief Executive of Association of Colleges, said: “The report rightly calls for us to do away with the historically narrow view of education pathways that have ingrained rigid ideas of what and who a college or a university is for. It’s led to unhelpful arguments about who gets a bigger slice of the pie when it comes to funding and finite resources.

The shifts in the world of work and the economy require a rethink about how people access learning at different stages throughout lives and at different levels. Collaboration, not competition between colleges and universities is key to this, to every citizen being able to be a lifelong learner.

For too long the system has focused on one group of adults – those who have progressed into higher education - at the expense of another group – those who have not . That is not fair and does not deliver strong communities. The recommendations for government and for colleges and universities, if implemented, would be a giant step towards more people being able to improve their work and life chances.

The UK Government’s Levelling Up White Paper, published last week, sets out the need for fundamental ‘systems change’ to level up left behind places, through a cross-government, cross-society effort. This report sets out the role colleges and universities can and must play at the heart of that effort, and ways in which local leaders can step up to work together in new ways, and policy change that will enable this too.”

Iestyn Davies, Chief Executive of ColegauCymru, said: “This publication sets out a clear challenge and expectation to all institutions and individuals that work in further and higher education and echoes the call in our manifesto, Further Success: Policy Recommendations for the next Welsh Government. While there are some great examples of collaboration between colleges and universities, there is still much that can be done to improve joint working and cooperation. In Wales, the proposed Commission for Tertiary Education and Research offers an opportunity to address this which is why it is vital to establish that body in in the right way. It is time that further and higher education moved forward together as equal partners. It is now for institutions to step up and outline how they will respond to the opportunities set out by the Welsh Government and contained within this report.”