Further education colleges have traditionally been promoters of social mobility, promoting adult learning and facilitating career change by offering training in new skills. For the past 10 years or more, they have also offered higher education courses as part of the same agenda of offering life chances to those who may have no other way of acquiring a bachelor's degree.
But the question we should be asking is this: what is more important to colleges – the funding that degree students bring in or the ideals of expanding social opportunity? For without a coherent selection policy, many students who start an academic degree at an FE college will struggle to cope with its demands.
In my FE college, there are no interviews conducted with those applying for degrees. It is decided purely on the basis of achieving a level 3 qualification, regardless of grade or even subject area undertaken. For instance, a sociology student might be accepted without ever having studied the subject before. There is also no face-to-face interview to assess motivation, aptitude or even interest in the subject of choice.
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In my first lesson with fresh students, I make a point of talking about my own motivation for becoming interested in what I teach and encourage them to reveal their own. It can be astonishing how little forethought has been undertaken, with only a vague inkling of what the subject is about or its relevance to their future career goals. And this for a course that across three years will set them back more than £20,000 in tuition fees.
Colleges have the wrong attitude towards HE
One argument for fees is that it makes students consider more carefully the value of their studies. But I usually find the opposite: students take up courses via student loans with no expectation of earning enough to ever repay them. And this is sometimes reflected in a rather cavalier attitude to learning, too, since for those with low employment expectations the course is viewed as all but free.
Clearly, a face-to-face interview ahead of selecting students would be useful in ensuring that only those who have a strong and clear desire for the subject are admitted. I have had students in their final year say things such as, “I don't know why I chose this subject,” and, “I am not really interested in it but I didn't know what else to do." Three years is a long time to study a subject – not to mention teach it – when ambivalence forms the dominant classroom attitude.
A consequence of recruiting students whose commitment and motivation may be limited from the outset is that rather than creating independent learners, students never rise much beyond the need to be spoon fed. They often express surprise that an essay in which they merely regurgitated their notes from lessons is not rewarded with a high grade. With expectations of education usually rooted in their school days, the notion of independent reading and critical awareness remains outside their scope. I have had several final-year students unable to offer more than descriptive responses to essays – no analysis or evaluation of ideas to the extent that it might be viewed as critical thinking.
Cash for the colleges and a diploma for the paying customers
It is extraordinary that FE colleges are not more diligent in making student selections when so much time and money is at stake. Or is it?
Money taken from degree students is very rarely ploughed back into the degree programme they are on, and income from student loan finance is commonly diverted to other areas of the college. Colleges view themselves as a last-chance saloon for students who do not have the academic ability to get into any other institution.
In the face of student complaints about poor teaching or resources, I have sometimes heard managers remark: “Well, they should be grateful they are even on a degree course! They wouldn't get in anywhere else!”
In short, the college views itself as doing its students a favour by accepting them on to degree courses, whereas students are gambling on obtaining a degree in the hope of one day landing a decent job.
In the middle stands the lecturer trying to offer learning experiences for students who may show little interest, while working for a college that does not harbour even the pretence of upholding academic ideals. In short, both parties remain happy as long as they get what they want – cash for the colleges and a diploma for the paying customers.
Of course, the tragedy here is that higher education should not be reduced to either of these things.
Rufus Reich is a pseudonym. The writer is a FE lecturer in England