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'FE colleges can deliver high-quality HE courses - more should do so'

Dr Nigel Morgan, dean of HE, Bromley College of Further and Higher Education, writes:

With more than 130,000 higher education students currently enrolled in further education colleges, it is clear that studying for a degree in a college environment is offering more people the chance to gain higher-level professional qualifications than ever before.

In the two years up to 2012-13, the number of undergraduates in FE colleges rose 11.8 per cent, while traditional universities suffered a drop. This could be related to lower fees, but research also indicates that the smaller environment, personalised learning, and applied industry knowledge is attracting people to study locally.

Here at Bromley College we know there is a growing number of people who want to develop higher level skills and knowledge, or perhaps wish to change direction in their career. We offer flexible study programmes, with part time and evening/weekend options - opening up opportunity for more people to gain HE qualifications alongside their day job or other commitments.

We are partnered with the University of Greenwich and Canterbury Christ Church University who validate and award our degrees. So our students gain a full degree from highly reputable universities, which have the added value of being vocationally focused with the needs of the local employment market in mind.

Many students need a softer entry into high level study and we meet this need by offering foundation degrees. These two year stand -alone qualifications have been effectively phased out by many universities and have therefore become the domain of the FE college.  I see this as a huge benefit to the sector and the key to setting HE provision within FE apart from a traditional university offer. In many ways, we and many other FE colleges are fulfilling the role of the former polytechnics.

Many foundation degrees incorporate applied learning. By setting study in the context of the workplace, they have genuine currency for those wishing to enhance and develop their employability and career aspirations. There are then the opportunities for students to progress onto a full bachelor’s degree – creating a pathway into academia that may not have been available to an individual before.

As well as the more flexible study options, we offer much smaller class sizes than a university and with a slightly extended teaching year (36 weeks), there are significantly more contact hours.  This means the pace of learning can be tailored to each student, allowing those who perhaps have less confidence to achieve more than they ever thought possible.

With the cost of higher education study increasing, staying local is a further pull for many younger students. Lower fees and lower living costs can help prevent the very high level of student debt we are now seeing. And for this reason alone, I feel the FE sector has a responsibility to offer the local community the very best HE opportunities.

And employers know and understand these benefits. Local businesses are often familiar with both the programmes being taught and the staff teaching them. In our region, many employers like to get involved in working with us and can trust that Bromley College students are being taught to a high standard. There are many opportunities for employers to set industry-relevant projects for students, which can be of real benefit to their businesses.

Successful HE provision is all about placing a student at the heart of the business. Everyone in the organisation must work towards giving them the very best chance of success, while maintaining rigorous academic and delivery standards.

Students often come to us lacking confidence in their abilities, yet progress right through to full degrees and highly successful careers. Encouraging progression is vital and we work hard at Bromley to ensure that students are given every opportunity to move up and on.

It is therefore no surprise to see FE colleges being rated so highly in last year’s student satisfaction survey of HE courses, in a poll run by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE – link to TES article). Twelve FE colleges appeared in the list of 20 top HE providers, with students stating they had an ‘outstanding experience’.

As a result of such encouraging stats, there have been calls to allow FE colleges to deliver more HE as well as accrediting their own programmes. Out of the 300 FE colleges offering HE provision in the UK, just three have the power to award their own foundation degrees and many feel this needs to change.

And I agree. FE colleges are in an excellent position to offer a wide-variety of high quality, work-focused HE opportunities.

Crucially though, standards must be kept high and the quality of such provision must be first rate. If this can be assured by a rigorous and robust process, then many more people could benefit from embarking on an educational pathway that really can be life changing.

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