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Who cares about 'Change'? Dealing with change for HE in FE

Today I am on my way to a meeting with the Higher Education Academy about their Paul Hamlyn Foundation-funded ‘Change Programme’. This programme is a response to the ‘What Works?’ report, that highlighted the centrality of student engagement and belonging to student retention and achievement.

The premise of the project, as far as I can make out, is to support and coordinate institutional research which could lead to interventions addressing the issues highlighted by the report.  These issues highlight the importance of increasing student 'belonging' to student success and retention.  They further highlight the need to identify effective strategies for increasing student engagement.  You can read a summary of the report findings here.

My institution is the only Further Education College involved in the project, despite the sector being a major provider of Higher Education in the UK. As Eve Rapley (2012) has shown:

HE in FE is a burgeoning sub-sector with 90% of FECs now delivering HE compared to just 20% in 2001 (The 157 Group, 2009), with HEFCE (2009) stating there are 172,000 students studying HE in FE (which accounts for over 10% of the UG population).

The HE in FEI sector seems to get a lot of government attention because they see it as cheap, "more cost-effective" competition for Universities, as providing an "important contribution to widening participation" (Parry and Callender, 2012), and as a key provider of vocational or community-based education.

 I view such attention with mixed feelings - glad that the sector is receiving that focus, but deeply suspicious of its motivations, which appear to me (as a raving neo-Marxist lefty) to be motivated by a desire to ensure that if people from poor academic backgrounds must have access to HE, that such access is at least limited to training the poor buggers to do mindless jobs and not, you know, anything that threatens the interests of the hegemony. I have written about this already though, and won’t (despite temptation) get into another rant about that particular gripe here (if you want to read my rant on this, follow here).

Unfortunately, although the government has shown such interest in the HE in FE sector, that interest rarely extends to actually engaging the sector more widely in the HE community itself. There has been little in terms of representation of the HE in FE sector in academic research, and even government report are often written by people who (albeit they may have an FE background) are usually safely ensconced within the comfortably walls of a University or HE-exclusive environment (Parry and Thomson at the University of Sheffield, Callender at University of London, etc.)

I must admit that in the past I have been somewhat disgruntled about the relative lack of engagement the HE in FE sector has received within the wider HE community, but frankly it is not difficult to understand it. FE Colleges tend to have little - sometimes nothing at all - in the way of a ‘research culture’, which means that staff in such Colleges will struggle to engage with academic communities either as independent academics or as representatives of their institutional sector. Higher teaching loads, fewer specialist staff, and a higher percentage of hourly-paid lecturers are combined with an institutional tendency to view ‘research’ merely in terms of teaching preparation time, and as secondary to Ofsted-driven ‘staff development’ activities. This makes it difficult to justify research to a management that often see it as taking time away from more important jobs, and harder still to find the time to do it when often the biggest concession you might be expect is that your teaching load is simply crammed into one four days to allow one for research activities. This concession might be enough for seasoned lecturers, but as HE in FE is often the place where aspiring academics are beginning their teaching career, the preparing of first-time course materials often eats up the majority of any space which has been worked into your timetable.

For a long time this didn’t bother me at all. I felt that I was more of a teaching-oriented practitioner than an academic researcher, and was unconvinced about how much better a teacher I might become by spending more time studying the minute evidence of linguistic scepticisms in the mid-eighteenth-century English novel (my utterly inexplicable specialism). I have started to be swung on the argument about the importance of research activities partly by being confronted with overwhelming evidence, and partly by the realisation that my own doubts on the value of research probably have more to do with the fact that I am as safely nestled into an FE culture as others might be in their ivory towers.

More specifically though, I have recently confronted the frustrations of trying to convince an institution of the need for engagement with the wider HE community. Today is Tuesday, and right up until the end of last week there was still a doubt about whether my institution was willing to participate in the HEA’s Change project. The reasons for such uncertainty were less interesting in specific relation to this project, than they were as an indicator of exactly why FE Colleges have been (and continue to be) so disengaged from the rest of the HE sector.

The main objections can be summarised under three headings:

  • Prioritisation
  • A lack of conviction about the material benefits of research activities
  • A lack of confidence and a feeling of institutional inadequacy

Prioritisation: For management in an FE College, it is always the case that there is a finite amount of human resources in order to achieve an infinite amount of work. Teaching, marking, supervisions, tutorials, form-filling, pastoral support, recruitment, data entry, data checking and data correction, boards and committees, report-writing, staff development, resubmission workshops, inductions, interviews, evaluations - all teaching staff are expected to participate in all these activities, within tight time-frames. This may not be different to any other educational institution, but perhaps more distinctively in terms of HE every one of these activities is seen as considerably more important than research or engagement. If research or engagement activities are likely to jeopardise the turnaround of any of those higher-priority tasks, then it is immediately seen as something which (far from contributing positively to the academic environment) is at best an indulgence (I have heard it described as ‘the icing on the cake’), and at worst actually a damaging distraction (from the same source; ‘we don’t want the icing to mean the cake gets left half-baked’).

A lack of conviction about the benefits: ‘What’s in it for us?’ is the (not entirely unreasonably) question. The idea of ‘reputation’ or ‘increased research profile’ is frankly laughable to an institution which is never likely to find research funding registering as a significant income stream. The material question demands that the benefits of research should balance the immediate cost of ‘buying out’ the contracted teaching hours from a lecturers contract - and many of the arguments in relation to the benefits of research as difficult to quantify in such a way that they can be audited with equal immediacy. Certainly it is possible to argue about the long-term costs (both financially and in terms of quality) of high staff turnaround, which would be the inevitable result of stifling the research activities of academics at the beginnings of their career. A newly-doctorated lecturer looking to forge a career in HE is unlikely to stay long in an institution which makes it difficult to build a research profile. At the same time though, the majority of teaching staff in FE Colleges are embedded in a teaching-orientated culture within which they can be educational professionals without needing such costly extra-curricular activities - so even if the implications of high staff turnaround is accepted, it may not necessarily be understood.

Institutional Inadequacy: As I make my lowly way up towards this HEA residential, this point is perhaps the most immediate for me now. To be sitting in a room with a number of impressive academics and researchers, each representing whole departments dedicated to issues of student engagement or institutional research, and each carrying archives of institutional research activities in their pockets, it is difficult not to feel a little ... Intimidated? Out of place? If this is true for me individually, it is perhaps easy to see how an FE institution might feel themselves to be threatened by fully engaging with a wider HE community.

My own College is, by any standards, a pretty damn impressive one. One of the countries largest FE Colleges it boasts fantastic results, one of the broadest and most inclusive student profiles in the country, amazing community links, and a whole bunch of other things that mean that if institutions were people it would be sitting at the top table of any gathering of the FE sector’s high and mighty. At a gathering of the HE sectors high and mighty though - let’s be honest, it is hard not to feel like the poor kid in the corner who has arrived late to the party and doesn’t really know anyone. This is not to say that the HE provision in an FE College has nothing to add to such a gathering, but it is difficult to engage fully with a community if you feel that the community is likely to highlight your own shortcomings - especially if your reputation is already built on your capacity to excel in other areas.

As a former dedicated weight-lifter, I remember meeting many fantastically gifted lifters that I tried to persuade to enter competition. I lost count of the amount of times I heard the excuse, ‘I’m not entering anything until I am sure I can win’. As ridiculous as it may sound, pride is a very human fault, and it is therefore perhaps no surprise that an FE College might be reticent to engage with an HE community because it does not want the dedicated infrastructure, the resources, the staff numbers, or the research profile of a University to leave it self-consciously polishing its shoes on the back of its trouser-leg and feeling pretty weedy.

Which brings me back to my current train journey.

Because in spite of all this, here I am. One of a small team from an FE College, invited by the HEA to participate in this Change project and (in spite of all the objections listed above) actually taking some few tentative steps towards ‘being involved’. Who knows? Might work out fine after all...

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