Published today on the Guardian HE Network

David Willetts and Vince Cable are aggressively talking up the role that FE colleges can play in driving value, dynamism and competition in higher education.

They have announced that the majority of “core and margin” places have been awarded to colleges and that they won’t stand idly by if universities obstruct further competition. But for many, the role of FE colleges delivering higher education is neither new nor hostile and the facts tell a rather different story.

Some 10% or so of higher education in England is already offered within FE colleges, with many long established and some offering unique specialist provision. Many more offer higher education in geographical “coldspots”, where the nearest universities are a long way off.

Difference and diversity are the key messages; different types of students, in different types of places, doing different subjects and qualifications, and usually taught in different ways too. Students studying HE in FE tend to be older, much more likely to be part-time, to live locally and to be from lower socio-economic groups.

So it is easy to see why FE colleges are a vitally important and specialist part of the higher education sector – and to be celebrated and supported for their contribution to the economy, to local communities and to social mobility.

But HE offered in FE colleges is rarely about competition and we shouldn’t be easily lulled into such a view by ministers. Equally, we shouldn’t be swayed by those in FE who wish to compete, engage in mission stretch and to offer many of the same courses already available elsewhere. Of course, there is some competition on price and on student experience but it is simply wrong to assume that this is the dominant behaviour in universities or colleges.

This is a particular problem with current policy and it is jeopardising long-standing and hugely successful relationships. Ministers are clearly concerned that some universities might be restricting competition from FECs by withdrawing accreditation or franchised places from college partners. This case is then made to and by ministers, but at best it is a partial picture.

In strategic terms, relationships between HE and FE institutions can be either transactional or transformational. The first is a consequence of increased competition and the policies that rely on it to deliver improvements in quality, price and choice.

Many colleges look for a simple cost-based deal to accredit their HE programmes shopping around in the way that they might for services like IT, construction or energy supply. Some universities will inevitably act the same in return, often based on their international experiences. But neither can then cry foul if relationships end because of competitive behaviour or restricted numbers. And neither can ministers, because this is how markets and market based competition always works.

Transformational relationships are something quite different. They draw on ambitions for a community or a place – sometimes for a specialist sector of the economy – partners working together for a common good that might not be achieved by working independently or competitively.

Often this has included support to achieve degree awarding powers, to secure additional funding or to improve the quality of the student experience as well as their progression and ultimate ambitions. This was a clear aim of many of the associate college arrangements developed in the 1990s and indeed by the Hefce funded Lifelong Learning Networks initiative, that built local partnerships based on progression and vocational programmes transforming and boosting opportunities and economic development.

In Wolverhampton, where partnerships between the university and surrounding colleges are strong, the issue with current number allocations is not about who gets more but about how best to maximise collective numbers across the city and the broader Black Country. The same is also true of colleges and universities working together in places such as Salford, Manchester, Northampton, High Wycombe and Aylesbury. But we need to acknowledge that transformational relationships are likely to be more expensive, more time-consuming but also longer term and more resilient to policy and other changes.

Neither transactional nor transformational relationships are necessarily good or bad. There are examples of both that work well and some that do not. But they are very clearly different and tensions will continue to arise between universities and colleges and for ministers – if they continue to confuse the two. Policy-making needs to be evidence-based and better informed so that the differences between HEIs and FECs are recognisable and clear. Reforms such as “core and margin”, simplified accreditation and more competition for awarding powers all need to be delivered with both types of relationship in mind.

It’s also worth remembering that nowhere in the OECD will you find FE and HE sectors run on such different grounds. The differences – especially in governance, funding, accreditation and inspection are also problematic. Additional confusion arises because of the contrasts between the clear autonomy and sector-owned quality processes in HE and the more directed and managed sector in FE. Where there are restrictions in HE – in awarding powers and in number controls, this further complicates tension between the two sectors – except of course, where relationships are strong.

In time, politicians would like to see the end of central control over higher education, but they should also give colleges the same level of autonomy as universities. Then they should not cry foul when they see competition (or collaboration) between them, instead enabling mature, independent institutions to make and to live by their own strategic choices. Having called for more competition and its consequences, they should not complain when it takes place. But perhaps more importantly they should not underplay the significance of partnership between universities and colleges and the impact they can have on the transformation of communities and local economies over the long term.

Geoff Layer, VC at University of Wolverhampton

Andy Westwood, CEO of GuildHE