Colleges 'blocked' over degree ambitions, warns Vince Cable
The Business Secretary Vince Cable says he is hearing reports that some universities are blocking colleges' attempts to offer cheaper degrees.
College leaders meeting in Birmingham say universities fear they could be priced out of the market.
The government has invited providers offering degrees for less than £7,500 a year to bid for extra places.
Most colleges offering degree courses do so in partnership with universities.
This is because they do not have degree-awarding powers and enter into arrangements with local universities which can validate their courses.
About 171,000 students study higher education (HE) courses at further education (FE) colleges in England.
Speaking at the Association of Colleges conference in Birmingham, Mr Cable said: "I do get reports that some FE colleges' attempts to offer their own HE courses are being discouraged, if not outright blocked, by their university partners.
"College principals have expressed fears that some universities may revise their validation charges and franchising arrangements.
"It would be a backwards step if FE colleges were squeezed out of the market by universities clawing back franchised places.
"FE colleges have a very important role to play in offering students greater choice and driving efficiency through the sector.
"Anti-competitive behaviour is obviously unacceptable."
He said if FE colleges could offer good courses at competitive prices then he was "all in favour of it".
Speaking afterwards to reporters, Mr Cable refused to name the colleges and universities involved but said MPs had reported that colleges in their constituencies were being affected.
He said it seemed to happen most frequently when the college and the local university were competing for the same lower-cost places.
"What they're worried about is FE colleges muscling in large scale on HE provision."
And he asked college principals to report their concerns to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which is managing the bidding process for these places.
Tuition fees are to rise to up to £9,000 a year in England next September and fees will rise for many students around the UK too.
Scottish students studying in Scotland will continue to pay no fees.
But the government wants there to be quality, lower-cost courses available through universities and colleges.
Delegates at the AoC conference warned that competition for these places was leading to fears that some FE colleges would end up with fewer degree courses being offered than was the case now.
Principal of Wirral Metropolitan College Mike Potter said the college had the plug pulled on a course by a university.
Mr Potter said: "In my opinion it's a commercial decision - they just decided that they didn't wish to validate degrees at BA level in future."
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "The concerns expressed by Vince Cable are by no means indicative of wider practice in the university system.
"Many universities are strongly committed to their partnerships with FE colleges and have supported them in their bids for extra numbers, giving them the power to decide the level of their own fees.
"Where universities wish to change their partnerships Universities UK is committed to working with the Association of Colleges and GuildHE to ensure that changes are made with as much notice as possible, in a reasonable and timely way."