Skip to content

New research shows FE reaches the HE students “others cannot reach”

July 5, 2012

Further education colleges are able to reach many higher education students who do not want to study at a university, even if one is close by – recent research shows. As well as being geographically accessible, FE colleges provide continuity for students who have already taken further education-level courses and offer a more supportive learning environment.

This is just one of the main findings of new research published last week (25 June) that seeks to understand the current nature of higher education (HE) taught in further education (FE) colleges. Entitled “Understanding higher education in further education institutions” it is the first major in-depth study of HE in FE. The research was carried out by a team at the University of Sheffield and the Institute of Education, University of London for the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). It presents a comprehensive picture of HE in FE, gained from college managers, university managers, employers and students, together with an analysis of national data and a literature review.

FE colleges are long-standing providers of higher education and account for significant numbers. Around one in 12 higher education students are taught in FE colleges. The study shows that many students are opting to study for degrees at FE colleges as against universities for a variety of reasons, such as location, familiarity and costs, rather than through informed decision making. They show little awareness about other higher education institutions. One in six students studying a higher education course at a FE college, for instance, actually thought they had applied to study at a university.

Employers recognise the important contribution of colleges to meeting local skills needs.   But most do not make a categorical distinction between colleges and universities in the provision of higher education. Instead they focus on their detailed knowledge of the quality of graduates from particular courses, regardless of where they are provided, the research shows.

Professor Gareth Parry (a member of the research team) of the University of Sheffield’s School of Education said: “Although a relatively small segment, higher education in further education colleges is diverse and complex. This reflects the responsiveness and adaptability of college providers, but such features also work against a clear identity.”

Main findings

  • There is a widespread lack of awareness about university-based education among students studying in FE colleges. Reasons given for choosing FE were mostly about the courses offered and the desire to learn in a familiar environment close to home.
  • Most students studying in FE colleges come from non-traditional educational backgrounds where neither parent had a higher education qualification, so few had any real knowledge about universities. The majority only applied to one institution – an FE college.
  •  The ”learning culture” of HE students in FE colleges is regarded by staff and students as distinctive from HEIs (higher education institutions) such as universities. HE students in colleges are frequently taught in smaller classes than in HEIs and they enjoy regular access to teaching staff. Although there is less opportunity for extra-curricular activities  and less breadth of experience within FE colleges, most students did not regard this as a drawback.
  • The cost of providing HE courses in colleges is believed by college managers to be lower than in HEIs – mainly a consequence of lower average teaching costs, greater staff productivity, more limited expenditure on learning infrastructure and fewer social facilities. But researchers found that in some cases, student fees were similar to those in universities.
  • The most important characteristic of HE within FE is its flexibility and heterogeneity.   This makes it hard to produce a clear definition or create a coherent picture as there are significant differences from one college to another.

Other findings

  • FE colleges and universities are not competing with each other for students but collaborating. Managers view most HE in FE colleges as complementary to rather than competitive with provision in HEIs.
  • Quality and standards in FE colleges are comparable to that in universities, according to the Quality Assurance Agency. But the National Student Survey (2008, 2009 and 2010) reported slightly lower satisfaction levels.
  • There is little evidence of overall growth of HE within FE over the past decide, although some individual colleges have seen a growth in undergraduate numbers. However, the majority of colleges interviewed were anticipating some future growth
  • FE colleges are playing an important role in widening participation in HE for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Professor Sir Peter Scott, from the Institute of Education (a member of the research team), commented: “Today there are more HE students in FE colleges than there were in the whole HE system at the time of the Robbins report in the 1960s. So colleges make a vital contribution to the delivery of (in particular, locally-based) higher education. But this contribution is still essentially complementary to that made by universities rather than in direct competition with mainstream provision.”

‘Understanding higher education in further education institutions’ is published by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. It is obtainable from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills website.


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: