To boost participation of under-represented groups in higher education, further education colleges should play a greater role, argue Profs Claire Callender and Kevin J Dougherty

If the government truly wants to widen participation in higher education in England, it should provide more financial support and policy attention to the role FE colleges can play.

Ways in which colleges can boost social mobility have been ignored by successive governments. They educate roughly nine per cent of all HE students in England and 18 per cent of the same in Scotland and Northern Ireland yet despite this, they have great difficulty attracting policy attention.

The Department for Education did sponsor area reviews of post-16 education that examined the missions, funding and market situation of FE colleges and sixth form colleges in England, with a focus on determining whether they should be reconfigured – including merging with each other or with universities.

The government is also creating new Institutes of Technology as part of its industrial strategy, aiming to increase the provision of higher-level technical education.

Still, it is unclear to what extent these initiatives represent a sharp policy break with the longstanding English focus on universities rather than sub-degree institutions.

Any commitment to widening participation in HE should play close attention to improving the further education sector. While about half of those completing sub-degree Higher National Degrees go on to achieve bachelor’s qualifications, students with vocational education qualifications still have more risk of not entering universities or dropping out of them.

So what can be done to help students get better access to universities?

We recently completed a study in which we compared and contrasted policies for widening participation both in England and the United States. We have two recommendations for improving FE’s contribution to widening participation in England, drawing on the experience of community colleges in the United States.

1. Transfer agreements

One way that the HE role of FE colleges could be enhanced is by developing transfer agreements for movement into university first-degree programmes. In contrast to the current system, these should apply not just to a small set of universities, but to a wide swath of universities and should focus on the transfer of students on vocational courses. 

This would mirror the system-wide arrangements that US states have developed between their public two-year community colleges and their public universities. For example, many states have developed “articulation” arrangements where community college students who complete certain courses are guaranteed that those courses will contribute towards an undergraduate degree at all the public universities in those states. These articulation agreements often apply not just to traditional academic programmes in the humanities and sciences but also to vocational programmes. 

This is not to gainsay the difficulty that FE programmes are often in vocational subjects that have no university equivalent. However, such transfer arrangements may become easier if English HE were to develop a credit-hour system similar to that in the US, which greatly eases the transfer of portions of a degree.

2. More links between colleges and universities

Another change would be to promote deeper links between FE colleges and highly selective universities. Such efforts would require attention to the ways selective universities discourage FE graduates by, in some cases, only crediting one year of a foundation degree towards a university degree. 

FE colleges need to be at the centre of the conversation

Similar issues have arisen in the US, with frequent reports of university resistance to fully accepting sub-degree courses when they are offered by community colleges and other sub-degree institutions. However, this transfer friction can be eased when universities and sub-degree institutions are brought together – particularly under the aegis of government – to discuss their perceptions of the academic demands of each other and to work out arrangements that put each at ease by protecting both academic quality and student mobility.

For example, the states of California and Illinois regularly hold formal curricular conversations between the universities and community college systems using their articulation agreements. 

In a time of growing demand for wider participation in HE, FE colleges need to be put at the centre of the conversation, just as has happened for community colleges in the US in the last decade. 

Claire Callender is professor of higher education policy at the UCL Institute of Education and Birkbeck. Kevin J Dougherty is professor of higher education at Teachers College, Columbia University