Can we handle more of the working class?

June 27, 1997

Graham Peeke examines the likely consequences of expanding student opportunities in further education

A recent report suggested that more working-class students could be attracted to higher education by further education colleges time-tabling more higher education courses. But what consequences would this have for the students, staff and curricula in the FE sector, as well as for the funding of the education system?

One positive consequence for students would be an increase in progression opportunities available at their local college, coupled with easier access to "taster" sessions and sampling of the HE experience.

More HE in colleges might also result in improved academic facilities such as the development of information technology and libraries. Poor library stocks are often cited as a major weakness by HE students in FE colleges.

College infrastructure might improve if colleges bowed to pressure from more HE students to provide better study and social areas. There might also be benefits resulting from improved teaching quality as FE staff develop their subject expertise and range of skills for HEstudents.

This last potential benefit, however, carries with it the danger of academic drift. There is a risk that lecturers might come to see HE teaching as their prime work, relegating their FE teaching to a lower status; subject to less effort. It is essential that such elitism and hierarchy is not promoted within a sector that has done so much to create opportunities for those who have been ill-served by a school system that stratifies achievement at GCSE level.

Indeed, any increase in HE work within colleges will inevitably lead to questions about the likelihood of HE being subsidised by FE. This is what is happening in many colleges where FE funding is more generous than that which can be obtained through partnership arrangements with local universities. In such circumstances, the core of FE students studying subjects such as catering, carpentry and beauty therapy might well feel justified in asking what is in it for them.

For FE teachers the main benefits of a growth in HE work include a greater variety in day to day teaching as well as an opportunity to develop careers.

However, teaching at HE level for a staff group largely inexperienced in operating at this higher level can lead to risky exposure and the characterisation of the task as "white knuckle" work. For some this is a challenge to be relished, for others a considerable threat. Whatever their level of skill and knowledge, FE lecturers do not, unlike their university counterparts, enjoy the security of teaching from a strong research base. Research opportunities in FE colleges are never adequate and are frequently the source of staff complaint and also the subject of critical comment from external examiners.

While the debate about the nature of the relationship between research and teaching rumbles on in the HE sector, FE can only ever develop its HE strengths on the basis of teaching skills, vocational emphasis and also student support.

What about the FE curricula? The more optimistic observers will hope that "mixed economy" colleges will erode the perceived divisions between academic and vocational provision and lead to the development of more work-related educational opportunities. The development of a modular, credit-based accumulation and transfer framework may be eased, and smoother transition to higher levels of study achieved. Many FE staff will see the main benefits accruing to the HE curricula, which might become more subject to the pressures dominant in the FE sector, which include accreditation of prior learning achievement and key skills development. Many college financial directors will welcome the greater financial diversification afforded by more HE funds in the FE sector, but any substantial increase in HE activity in FE is only likely to intensify calls for a complete review of the overall funding system, and for the eventual amalgamation of the two funding councils.

If funding is provided directly from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, colleges may see some additional resources come their way.

Whatever the financial impact for colleges, closer collaboration between the two sectors must strengthen the case for the equality of funding used for the provision of HE, regardless of where it is actually delivered.

Benefits for the educational system as a whole might be substantial. A more accessible system could be created, with greater opportunities for traditionally disenfranchised groups, and the damaging status differential between the academic and vocational might be more effectively addressed.

Ever since incorporation, colleges have been encouraged to operate in a competitive manner. This has not always been beneficial, since it has led to wasteful duplication, and to the distraction of some college managers away from curricula and teaching quality issues. Recently, however, the talk has been much more of collaboration and regionalism, and a closer link between FE and HE is consistent with this shift.

Local influence on higher education that was weakened when the polytechnics left local authority control, could be strengthened, enabling a much greater role for F/HE in driving local economic development. Overall, it is clear that any increase in HE within the FE sector would bring considerable benefits for all stakeholders in the system.

However, there are potential problems which would need to be monitored. These include academic drift and the development of a damaging hierarchical ethos.

Funding arrangements, both for institutions and their students, must be harmonised and appropriate support structures put in place for a staff group that is relatively inexperienced in teaching at HE level.

Finally, FE needs to keep its eye on the ball and not be distracted from the task of increasing participation in basic FE, working harder to make FE opportunities available for those who are physically and learning disabled, and striving to make more effective use of information technology.

Graham Peeke works for the Further Education Development Agency, but writes here in a personal capacity.

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