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Re. Understanding higher education in further education

So, BIS (the Department for Business Innovation and Skills) published a really quite extraordinary report on Higher Education in Further Education last month.  You can read it by clicking the link at the bottom of this post.  It has taken me a while to digest this report, and frankly I could fill a thousand blogs with responses to its various parts - but I will be disciplined and save my rants for future moments when I have nothing better to do.

The first thing to note is that report is quite spectacularly balanced.  I have spent the last ten years teaching Higher Education in Further Education Colleges, and see myself as specifically embedded into this environment.  I have no skills or qualifications to teach Further Education, and I have no particular interest iin switching to a University environment because frankly I am (to quote Todd Snyder) happy to be here at all.  Over the last ten years there has been many things about HE in FE that has infuriated me, and I have not seen a single report which I have thought was not either dismissive or distorted by political ideology.  This, though, is the first time I have read a report which I felt not only provided an accurate reflection of my experiences of HE in FE, but provided a fair and objective analysis of it.

Just to give you a flavour, here are some of the significant points which the report has raised:

  • The key conclusion raised by the report focuses on the breadth of participation and and access which HE in FE provides. Students are on average older and with less A-levels.  More of them come from areas with low HE participation, and are 'local' students from a widening participation (or "non-traditional") background.  The report concludes that one of the great values of HE in FE is that it provides "greater heterogenity" than University courses.  This certainly reflects my experience.  Indeed, I currently teach in an London borough which is flooded with Universities, but has a relatively low percentage of teenagers progressing into HE.  Indeed, it is interesting to look through the statistics and see how many London boroughs with big Universities have hugely low numbers of students from the local areas.

  • There is a focus on the distintiveness of HE in FE provision.  There is apparently high levels of student satisfaction for teaching and feedback, but lower satisfaction in terms of resources.  This is no surprise, and in my experience this dissatisfaction with resources is usually focused on library stocks and dedicated HE areas.  There does seem to be something more to this though.  The report highlights that Universities see HE in FE as a compliment to their interests, rather than as competition.  I do find this a little discomforting.  Mark Leach, in his insightful comment for wonke, sees this as a rather positive comment, highlighting that clearly Universities do not provide courses "suited" for the "lives" of the widening participation students of FE Colleges.  This is a view which reflects that of the 1997 Dearing Report, but (as I have argued before) I worry that this assumes that the purpose of HE in FE is to qualify those from less privileged backgrounds to... well, stay exactly where they are!  Universities can educated those with greater access to education to do to posh jobs, while the rest can get an HND in boiler maintenance.  I like the idea that HE in FE is not competition with Universities, because they are providing HE to different kinds of students.  However, I do not like the idea that HE in FE is training those students for jobs suited to their 'lives'.  I want HE in FE to be equipping students to do the same jobs that students from Russell Group Universities are getting.  This is a longer argument though, and read my previous post if you want the full rant.

  • Reference is made to the lower delivery costs of HE in FE due to "lower average teaching costs and greater staff productivity".  What this actually means is that teachers are paid less and teach more - usually in both HE and FE.  This reflects my own experience to some extent.  Certainly the salaries of HE staff in FE Colleges seems to be usually the same as that in the FE sector, and pay in the FE sector is generally shockingly poor.  Some Colleges do have a separate scale for HE staff, mainly because it is very difficult otherwise to retain qualified staff, but I have worked in some FECs where my salary remained firmly rooted to the bottom end of the FE scale largely because I already had the qualifications which might otherwise have incurred a bump.  In terms of contact hours (i.e. the number of hours spend in a classroom teaching), FECs tend to have around 26-28 hours per week, and usually the same is expected of HE staff.  Because the HE term is shorter than the FE term, at one point my contact hours have increased to 33 per week.  This is, I feel, something which can impact upon quality of provision. These kind of hours mean you are generally teaching across so many different areas that it is almost (if not entirely) impossible to be anything more than half-hearted in terms of preparation and research.  I am currently contracted to 18 contact hours per week, and although this has exhorted gasps of astonishment from some of my Russell Group colleagues I do not find it to be too problematic.  Either way, this is probably the reason why students studying HE in FE seem to highlight the "more personal learning environment" mentioned in the report.  The business of lecturing in an FE environment is (almost entirely) the business of engaging with and supporting students.

  • What it does lead to though, is something which is also mentioned in the report: That HE in FE staff are less research-focused and more teaching focused.  If you are teaching upwards of 25 hours a week, how could it be otherwise?  This probably relates to the point about the distinctiveness of HE in FE though, and could explain the good student feedback on teaching but the poor feedback on resources.  There is much which could be said on this point.  On two recent occasions I have heard representatives of Russell Group Universities express doubt that somebody can be capable of teaching on a degree course if they do not have a Phd or are not research active - and perhaps such a view illustrates well the divide between University approaches and HE in FE approaches.  Now I am certainly rather biased here, but I do suspect it might be more likely that research-active University lecturers could improve their teaching by focusing more on pedagogical practice, than that HE in FE lecturers could improve their teaching by (in my case) doing more research on linguistic philosophy in the mid-eighteenth century English novel.  I would be interested in some research which asked HE students about the relative importance of a Phd and publications, over a teaching qualification - perhaps from both first year undergraduates and final year undergraduates.  I suspect that final year graduates at least, would suggest that they are more interested in lecturers being good at teaching, than in how many books they had written.  *ADDITION* Ok, I realise this doesn't sound quite right, because I am not suggesting here that research is not an important part of HE of any kind. I was really just trying to suggest that the kind assumptions which allows research-led institutions to look down their noses at teaching-led institutions is perhaps a little unfair, and that it can benefit student experience when research is seen more as a support to the teaching process than the other way around. What I have problems with is the attitude which implies that you cannot be a good teacher unless you are writing books.

  • It is interesting to see the references in this report to a fundamental lack of understanding about the sector.  This is highlighted by Mark Leach as well, who describes it as "one of the least-understood parts of UK tertiary education".  This lack of understanding seems to appear on two frontsFirstly, the broad governance of HE in FE.  The report refers to the fact that HE in FE is required to report to too many agencies, and that this leads to a managerial confusion.  Boy, oh boy, how true this is.  Now, it has been a long time since I have been involved in course management - but when I was, I was having to complete paperwork and reports for the following:
    • The University which accredited the programmes we were delivering
    • The FE College itself
    • Ofsted, in order to be part of the FE College's overall data
    • HEFCE, because the course was pulling direct funding
    • QAA, because this is the Quality Assurance Agency for HE

    The net result was that paperwork and reporting took up most of my time.  Often the same information or data had to be put into several different forms using different formats to suit different bodies, and at any point there was uncertainty as to which authority took precedence.  Was it more important, for example, to satisfy the systems auditing requirements of the College (which would impact upon Ofsted inspections) or of the accrediting University (which would impact upon their QAA inspections)?  This systematic uncertainty was fed by, and fed into, an uncertainty in the College's own structures.  How were HE courses expected to be run?  How was the course expected to fit into systems designed specifically for the FE sector?  When HE teaching is being observed, do lecturers get criticised for not employing games during classes or for not encouraging enough criticality?
  • Secondly, there is a lack of understanding by students about HE in FE.   The report refers to a lack of "informed choice" among students, and little real understanding of what HE in FE has to offer and what Universities have to offer.  Indeed, according to the report 17% of degree students in FE Colleges "thought that they had applied to a University rather than a College".  Actually, the validation issue is a little unhelpful here.  Colleges are required to provide clear information about the accrediting body for their courses - and where that body is a University it is easy to understand why students end up thinking of themselves as students of that University.  Certainly there is an argument here for a clearer way of informing prospective and active students about the distinctiveness of HE in FE - although conversely I do also wonder whether accrediting bodies do not need to take more responsibility as well.  If a University accredits a degree being delivered in an FE College, why should those students not feel themselves to be a part of the broader structure of that University?  The University is almost certainly profiting from those students - so it is valid to question the extent to which the FEC and the students themselves are getting their money's worth...

Overall, this report is hugely welcome.  It is encouraging to see such a fair evaluation of the distinctive role which HE in FE can, and does, play.  It is encouraging to read that employers generally "did not make distinctions" of prospective employees qualifications "by the type of provider".  Most of all though, it is encouraging to think / hope that this is just the beginning of an evaluation about how this sector can be better supported to continue its "important contribution" to "widening participation".

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