The idea that provision of higher education courses in further education colleges can advance social mobility is an “illusion”, a researcher has argued.
Kevin Orr, a reader in work and learning at the University of Huddersfield, found that graduates from “HE in FE” courses were more likely to be unemployed and to earn less than their counterparts who had attended higher education institutions.
“HE in FE is not even going to scratch social mobility. It is hope-goading gloss to suggest otherwise,” Dr Orr told a seminar organised by the Society for Research into Higher Education.
But Dr Orr, who used to be a teacher in a further education college, said that this did not mean that there was no point in offering higher education qualifications outside universities. He argued that this level of study could still have a powerful impact on individuals, and that it could give people an understanding of society that they might otherwise be unable to access.
A paper presented by Dr Orr says that although higher education participation among poorer communities is growing, it is increasing at a similar rate among people with more affluent backgrounds.
Drawing on data produced by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Dr Orr writes that higher education students from the most disadvantaged quintile are twice as likely to attend a further education college as a university, and that the inverse is true for the most privileged quintile.
But 16 per cent of higher education course graduates who left further education colleges in 2011 were still unemployed six months later, compared with 10 per cent of higher education institution graduates, the paper says.
Only 6 per cent of the further education college leavers were carrying out further study, which Dr Orr describes as a “new and necessary distinguisher of social position”, compared with 16 per cent of university graduates. Starting salaries of further education college leavers were also 16 per cent lower than their university counterparts.
The paper says that there is “no evidence” that provision of higher education courses in further education colleges had an impact on lessening income inequality, even while it widened participation.
Dr Orr concludes that his findings meant tutors on higher education courses in further education colleges should end their “alienating attempt to achieve parity” with universities. Instead, they should re-examine their curricula to ensure that they focus on imparting an understanding of knowledge that has previously been the preserve of a privileged group in society.
“This may not change society, but it might change lives”, the paper says.