Developing Higher Education in Further Education Colleges
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Sheffield
Unit of AssessmentEducation
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Education: Specialist Studies In Education
Economics: Applied Economics
Summary of the impact
A twelve-year programme of research (2001-12) led by Professor Gareth
Parry on higher education in further education colleges has produced
impacts on policy development, institutional strategy and professional
practice in England. The beneficiaries are the central authorities for
higher and further education, the colleges of further education and their
university partners, college managers and tutors, and thereby students and
employers. The types of impact are changes to national funding and
reporting arrangements; enhancements to policy and organisational
learning; and contributions to institutional capacity-building. The
vehicles for achieving impact are collaborations with policy, professional
and practitioner communities through expert programmes, consultancies,
databases, directories and guides to good practice. The reach of the
impact is national, cross-sector and institutional, with a wider influence
on debates across the UK and international developments including in
The research is the first to chart and analyse the contemporary
contribution of further education colleges to English higher education.
The findings assess the distinctiveness of this provision and the extent
to which it has stimulated institutional diversity and wider access.
Explanations are given for why growth in the size and share of higher
education in the college sector — a goal of successive governments since
1997 — has not been achieved. The overall argument is that the structures
of a two-sector system of further and higher education exercise a
decisive, often contradictory, influence on efforts to build a larger role
for colleges in higher education.
The underpinning research was supported by five grants awarded by
national agencies. All the research was based at Sheffield. It is the main
body of academic work on this part of English higher education. In each
study, the major user groups were partners in the conduct of the research.
This work led, in turn, to follow-up projects funded by user
(1) The college contribution to higher education targets, 2001-02
Funded by the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA), the research
used documentary sources to trace the policy history of higher education
in colleges. It analysed administrative data to identify patterns of
provision and funding. The findings highlighted inconsistency and
ambiguity in public policy arising from one sector being accorded lead
responsibility for the higher education taught in another sector [R1].
(2) Review of agreements and arrangements for indirect funding,
This study, sponsored by the Higher Education Funding Council for England
(HEFCE), surveyed all further education colleges and universities that
were party to indirect funding arrangements. An analysis of funding
agreements and case-study findings demonstrated low levels of transparency
and trust in franchise relationships, with significant variation in the
proportions of funding retained by universities. The asymmetries and
uncertainties in these arrangements, it determined, were problematic for
the growth of higher education in the college sector [R2].
(3) Universal access and dual regimes of further and higher
A grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) supported
research on the nature and influence of sector separation on policy
formation, organisational development and student mobility. The study
found no developed rationale for a two-sector system and there was
ambivalence about the combination of further and higher education in
mixed-sector institutions. Student transitions were neither smooth nor
seamless. In line with international evidence, the location of higher
education in colleges had contributed to both democratisation and
(4) Patterns of further and higher education in colleges and
A second HEFCE-sponsored study used a fuzzy-matching tool to create a
statistical picture of all types and levels of publicly funded tertiary
education in England. It showed that the sub-contracting of teaching to
other institutions was an important feature of relationships within, as
well as between, sectors. A technical report and commentary pointed to
serious shortcomings in data coverage [R4].
(5) Understanding higher education in further education colleges,
Research commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and
Skills (BIS) is the most authoritative account of higher education in the
college sector. Using qualitative and quantitative approaches, the study
examined claims made for the distinctiveness of college-taught higher
education. The important role of colleges in widening participation was
confirmed, although the extent to which students were making informed
choices was questioned. These were cost-effective locations for higher
education but with limited scope for economies of scale. Responsiveness
and flexibility were coupled with heterogeneity and short-termism [R5].
References to the research
R1. Parry G and Thompson A (2002) Closer by Degrees. The Past,
Present and Future of Higher Education in Further Education Colleges.
London: Learning and Skills Development Agency, 86pp (research publication
arising from peer reviewed funding from the Learning and Skills
R2. Parry G (2003) Mass Higher Education and the English: Wherein
the Colleges?, Higher Education Quarterly, 57 (4), pp 308-337.
R3. Parry G (ed) (2009) Special Issue on The College Contribution
to English Higher Education: International and Contextual Commentaries, Higher
Education Quarterly, 63 (4), pp 319-433.
R4. Rashid S, Parry G, Thompson A and Brooks G (2011) Patterns
of Further and Higher Education in Colleges and Universities in England:
A Statistical Summary and Technical Commentary. Bristol: HEFCE,
(research publication arising from peer reviewed research funding from
Details of the impact
Shaping national policy
The research has contributed to revisions of policy, changes in
implementation, assessments of progress, and challenges and changes to the
thinking of national bodies. The direct beneficiaries were HEFCE, the
Learning and Skills Council (LSC), BIS and the Association of Colleges. As
a result of the enhanced capability of these organisations in a hitherto
underdeveloped area of policy, choices for students have improved and
partnerships between colleges and universities have been better supported.
The core recommendations of the 2002-03 research were accepted by HEFCE
and, following a review in 2005-06, implemented as sector policy [S1]. The
measures adopted included `a minimum period (three years) of security for
the funding and student numbers available to them, so that colleges have
more opportunity for long-term strategic investment in higher education'
(HEFCE 2006). In another revision of policy consequent upon the research,
HEFCE developed guidance on clarity and transparency in indirect funding
partnerships. The same research, along with the findings of the 2001-02
LSDA study, underpinned the thematic review undertaken by Parry (2004) for
the Foster inquiry into further education colleges in England (Foster
2005). These studies and the 2006-08 ESRC research were among the
`fundamental basic resources' used by the LSC to guide its policy on
higher-level qualifications (LSC 2008).
As a result of its engagement with the Sheffield research, HEFCE funded a
series of follow-on projects between 2007 and 2010 to advise on policy and
assist with development. One of these, an independent monitoring and
evaluation of the introduction of the new measures, led to a redesign of
the implementation plan. These interventions, guided by the research
evidence on how colleges managed their higher education, enabled HEFCE to
secure higher education strategies from 240 out of 256 eligible colleges
(HEFCE 2011). For small providers in particular, this was the first time
their higher education was underpinned by an explicit strategy, with a
positive impact on curriculum integration, student progression and the
management of standards and quality.
Another type of impact was policy learning. Those benefiting were the
responsible officers in HEFCE, the LSC, the Higher Education Academy
(HEA), the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS), the AoC and the
government directorates for higher and further education. In the absence
of an overarching machinery for cross-sector policy development and
intelligence, the research has enabled officials working in one sector to
better comprehend contexts and complexities in the other. `For those of
us implementing policy for higher-level qualifications, the research has
been insightful and critically interrogative. It has extended our
understanding of policy history and development, including how sector
strategies may sometimes diverge, even when the policy goal is the same'
(Head of Qualifications, Skills Funding Agency) [S2].
As a result of the 2011-12 BIS research, early assumptions about the
costs and characteristics of higher education in colleges have given way
to more evidence-based understandings. Advice to ministers and advisers
from the research team made plain the difficulties surrounding growth and
competition by further education institutions.
The vehicles for achieving policy learning were (a) research briefings
for government officials (BIS) and ministers (Hodge, Howells, Willetts)
(b) expert consultancies for sector bodies (LSIS) (c) memberships of key
policy and advisory groups (the AoC, HEA and the Quality Assurance Agency
for Higher Education) and (d) invitations to contribute to national
inquiries (Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning). Given
the turnover of agencies in further and higher education, an unanticipated
impact was the opportunity to inject a policy memory into public debates
and decision-making, including the work of think tanks (Policy Exchange
Informing institutional strategy
The research has strengthened the capacity of colleges to develop, manage
and monitor their strategies for higher education. The main beneficiaries
were college managers, tutors and governors, especially those in the Mixed
Economy Group and 157 Group of colleges.
Three follow-on projects undertaken for HEFCE were dedicated to the
strategic development of higher education in colleges. The first evaluated
a pilot exercise on the appraisal of college strategies (Parry and
Thompson 2009) and the second drafted guidance on Writing Higher
Education Strategies (HEFCE 2009). The latter was used by 240
colleges in preparing their submissions (attracting 552 page views). The
third was a national leadership programme (2008-10) led by the Sheffield
team and targeted at senior college managers. The expert programme of
seminars and materials production was informed by the body of research
completed since 2001, including the 2009-10 study on institutional
profiles. Unique to its impact was the combination of resources assembled
by the research team and contributed in confidence by participant
A total of 176 colleges were represented at five regional seminars. One
of these events was designed for college governors and led to the
production of a Guide for Governors and Clerks published by LSIS in
2009 [S4]. Sent to all college governing bodies, it is a key reference for
their responsibilities and decisions on higher education. Each regional
seminar featured inputs from HEFCE, QAA and the Leadership Foundation for
Higher Education (LFHE) with contributions from college principals. A core
text for the programme was a book Managing Higher Education in
Colleges authored by the research team and published by Continuum in
2006. This was written specifically for college personnel and its
checklists are routinely used as tools in institutional planning. The
success of the expert programme, as attested by HEFCE, was its reach and
authority in equipping college leaders with a strategic reading of the
changing landscape of higher education. This included international
perspectives on the college mission in higher education.
The impact of the expert programme extended to Australia where Parry was
invited to undertake an equivalent exercise in 2012. The funders were the
Australian government, TAFE Directors Australia (TDA) and the University
of Melbourne. The beneficiaries were federal and state government
departments along with dual-sector and mixed-sector institutions in New
South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia. Managers from over
60 colleges and universities were represented, including private
providers. `The lessons for Australia of the research on franchising
were timely and influential. By bringing Gareth to Australia to share
and debate these findings, we were able to equip our institutional
strategies with an evidence base not previously available to colleges'
(Director of Policy and Stakeholder Engagement, TDA) [S5].
Guiding professional practice
The research has enhanced the professional development of staff in
colleges and partner universities. The beneficiaries were (a) front-line
lecturers, course leaders, curriculum managers, partnership directors and
learning support workers; (b) the sector bodies responsible for continuing
professional development; and (c) the student unions, including their
local and national officers.
These were the audience for a 200-page good practice guide Supporting
Higher Education in Further Education Colleges: Policy, Practice and
Prospects. Authored by the Sheffield team and published by HEFCE in
2009, the guide has been one of its most requested reports. A total of
2173 hard copies were distributed (receiving 2510 page views in the first
year of publication). Alongside a synthesis of research evidence, the
guide showcased examples of good practice contributed by 60 organisations.
The content was reviewed by a team of 26 readers from individual colleges
and universities as well as the National Union of Students and the staff
unions. Designed as a tool for staff development, it became the standard
reference for professional practice: `We valued its widespread use
across the sector. As higher education moved up the policy agenda, every
college had reason to access the guide, not least in meeting policy
expectations which the authors had played a part in shaping''
(Assistant Chief Executive, AoC) [S6].
Directories, databases, websites, networks and training programmes were
created for user groups by each of the five research studies. In accessing
these resources, the colleges strengthened their capacity to manage,
monitor and argue for a larger role in higher education. Their impact and
importance were quickly recognised by the sector bodies who subsequently
assumed lead responsibility for these services. Since 2007, a database on
higher education coordinators compiled by the Sheffield team has been
published by the HEA. In 2008, a directory on work-focused higher
education in colleges and universities was produced by Foundation Degree
Forward based on bibliographies and commentaries in the underpinning
research. In 2012, the AoC published its own guide to higher education
policy and practice. In 2013, LSIS and the LFHE launched an accredited
professional development course based on a design developed three years
earlier by Sheffield researchers for the HEFCE expert programme.
In sum, the research has benefited each of the responsible authorities
and all of the further education colleges involved in higher education.
The effects were planned, sustained and cumulative as well as indirect and
sometimes contingent. The influences spanned high policy and local
practice. Policy-making, capacity-building and strategic thinking have
been enhanced. An infrastructure has been established to maximise present
and future impacts.
Sources to corroborate the impact
S1. The Head of Funding at HEFCE can corroborate the adoption of
the recommendations of the 2002-03 research and the operational benefits
arising from subsequent follow-up projects.
S2. The Head of Qualifications at the Skills Funding Agency can
corroborate the contributions to cross-sector policy learning and
S3. The Policy Exchange report (2011) shows the central place of
research by Parry in contemporary policy debates on the higher education
mission of colleges.
S4. The LSIS guide (2009) shows the translation of research
findings into guidance for governors.
S5. The benefits to institutional planning and professional
development in Australia can be corroborated by the Director of Policy and
Stakeholder Engagement at TAFE Directors Australia.
S6. The nature and extent of use of the good practice guide (2009)
can be corroborated by the Assistant Chief Executive at AoC.