Study of HE in FE questions whether students are making 'informed choices'

Students who undertake higher education in further education colleges may not be making informed choices, according to a major report commissioned by the government.

July 12, 2012

More than 2,500 students, as well as managers and employers, from 25 colleges across England were interviewed for the report, Understanding Higher Education in Further Education Institutions, which was commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Currently around one in 12 higher education students attend further education colleges but the government wants that proportion to increase.

The higher education White Paper, released in June 2011, argued for a "greater diversity of provision", including "more higher education in further education colleges".

The survey finds that colleges provide smaller class sizes and more teaching hours than universities, and are also slightly more cost-effective (see boxes, below), but adds that it is "questionable" whether their students had made "an informed choice of institution".

"Most had no, or very limited, experience of universities, and they were largely unaware or indifferent to what they could offer," the study concludes.

One in 10 respondents had not realised that they had chosen to study at a college and had thought they were going to university, the survey finds.

In some cases, students and their parents were "shocked to learn they had ended up at a college instead of a university, especially one person who had turned down a place in clearing at another university".

The study says that the students are likely to have been "misinformed" by university websites and prospectuses, which give information about the courses franchised to colleges.

Around two-thirds of respondents had not applied anywhere save for their place of study, with nearly six out of 10 citing the costs of living away from home, or work and family commitments, as reasons for their approach. More than a third chose to stay on at colleges where they were already studying.

"They did not appear to see they had other choices," the report says.

Fiona Grady, vice-principal (curriculum and quality) at Boston College in Lincolnshire, argued that if students wanted to remain at home, this did not mean they were ill-informed.

"A lot of our students who are starting in September are doing higher education only because they realise...they can do it here. Not everybody wants to leave their home town," she said.

Colleges performed better than universities on widening access, the study states. Twenty per cent of entrants hail from geographical areas in the bottom fifth for participation rates, compared with 11 per cent for universities.

Gareth Parry, professor of education at the University of Sheffield and one of the report's authors, said: "A key advantage enjoyed by [further education colleges] is their ability to reach students that universities, even those with a strong widening-participation ethos, struggle to reach."

The report says that coalition measures to foster competition for places between colleges and universities could be a "game changer" for what has been "relatively stable and evolutionary provision" up until now.

To encourage differentiated fees, the government reallocated 20,000 student places for 2012-13 to institutions charging £7,500 or less on average a year.

Further education colleges won around half those places (although student allocations had been taken from them to create the 20,000-strong pool).

In the wake of the policy, there were concerns that universities had withdrawn places franchised to colleges to protect their own student numbers.

The auction has been scaled back to 5,000 student places for entry in 2013-14.

Stable relationships, not promiscuity

Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, said that if the government wanted to expand higher education in further education, it could attempt to replicate the US' community college model, where there was a "genuine and stable" relationship between colleges and universities.

But this type of system was at odds with coalition policy, which was "about empowering colleges to compete", he said.

Although there were some "long-standing partnerships" between colleges and universities in the UK, "there is a high degree of promiscuity on both sides", which was very different from the US situation, he argued.

James Winter, chair of the Council of Validating Universities, a body representing higher education institutions with college partners, said it was "striking" that the report had expressed "worries about the impact of the government's reforms on the stability needed to build effective collaboration".

Ministers should heed these warnings if they were "serious" about expanding provision in colleges, he said.

The report says there is enough demand to sustain a "degree of expansion" of higher education in further education.

But the institutions that were interviewed expect "significant, but perhaps not spectacular" growth in this area, Professor Parry added.

Understanding Higher Education's other authors are Claire Callender, Peter Scott and Paul Temple, all academics based at the Institute of Education.

In the publication, the authors state that BIS does not necessarily share the views expressed in the document.

Nurture studies: smaller class sizes and more contact hours

In terms of teaching, colleges measure up well to universities.

On average, students in colleges receive 16 contact hours a week, an hour more than the typical university figure, Understanding Higher Education in Further Education Institutions says.

They also study independently for 14 hours a week, also an hour more than the university average.

Class sizes are smaller than in universities, and a "nurturing rather than a sink-or-swim learning culture" is generally perceived.

Dave Linnell, chief executive of Cornwall College, said that smaller class sizes and more contact hours allowed colleges to "nurture people through" their courses.

But he acknowledged a weakness highlighted by the report: the paucity of extracurricular activities. Only 28 per cent of respondents disagree with the statement: "there are few opportunities for extracurricular activities on or around the campus".

Mr Linnell said that while Cornwall had a "thriving students' union", it could not offer all the clubs and societies that might be found in universities. However, he added, Cornwall did cater for different clientele.

"A high percentage of my students are over the age of 25. Because of [that]...they are looking for a different higher education experience," Mr Linnell said.

Although most students say their experience at college is good, their appraisal of the "college environment and their individual daily experiences" is not as positive as the equivalent testimonies made by university students, the report says. It also points out that teachers are not as research-active in colleges as they are in universities.

For college students, "it's more important that someone can teach well than has a very high level of knowledge" about a particular subject, said Fiona Grady, vice-principal (curriculum and quality) at Boston College in Lincolnshire.

Colleges are encouraging staff to do more research and create more social space for students to compensate for the deficiencies identified, the report says.

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