University aspirations dented by hard reality
FRANK McLoughlin, director of students at City amp; Islington College, North London, cites an interesting statistic.
In 1991, 30 students from the college's Camden Road site - formerly north London College - went to university. Last year more than 300 went. The college has seen a large rise among students on vocational programmes going into higher education.
"I gave a talk to some students a little while ago - about 200 young people. I asked how many planned to go to university - every hand in the room went up," he said. "If you'd have asked that question 10 years ago, university wasn't in the ken of lots of, particularly black, young people in the inner cities.
"I think raising aspirations and expectations has been a key part of what FE is about."
Further education colleges now provide around 40 per cent of new entrants to degree courses, says the Association of Colleges.
But many of these young people have economic and educational backgrounds that differ from most students in higher education.
The association makes these points in its evidence to the House of Commons' education select committee, on the quality of the student experience in higher education. It says further education is in a key position to help fulfil Tony Blair's aim that half of the country's under-30s will go on to higher education in the next 10 years.
But it says that traditional forms of delivering higher education are not enough - the needs of young adults returning to learning after work experience are very different from those of 18-year-old school and college-leavers.
Another issue is the growing student debt and poverty although one side-effect is that it makes them more critical consumers.
Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show a steady rise in the number of applicants from further education accepted to degree courses.
In 1994, 20,892 went on to degree courses from sixth-form colleges and 51,494 from the whole of FE. In 1997, the figures were 28,094 and 63,519 respectively.
UCAS says that routes into higher education are becoming more diverse, with greater emphasis on life and employment skills. The numer of applicants with vocational qualifications entering higher education has risen sharply since 1994.
Meanwhile, the higher education sector has been committed to widening its appeal with measures by the funding council to support universities which make an effort, and a growth in partnerships with FE colleges, schools and other providers.
Seven Oxford colleges recently launched a consortium in a bid to raise the number of state-school and mature entrants . The consortium will target FE, which sends the smallest number of entrants to Oxford.
According to Andrew Morris, research manager for the Further Education Development Agency, the top universities are under pressure to make their student profiles more representative.
But he believes they have deeper social and cultural barriers to overcome. "I have experience of having seen many students through special schemes into Oxford and Cambridge and there are a lot of problems.
"Some students get places and turn them down. Some of them don't feel they're in the right environment. Some of them are so affected by the special nature of the social environment and historical tradition that they feel completely uncomfortable, so there's a risk of drop-out or unhappiness."
He believes locality is a further issue for universities generally.
"Many people from the under-represented groups don't want to play the old model of university where you uproot and go hundreds of miles away," he says.
"Among young Asian girls, the question of leaving home to go to university for a girl who's expected to remain close to home is just not accepted."
City amp; Islington College sends around half-a-dozen students a year to Oxford or Cambridge. But while door-opening initiatives by universities are encouraging, there are other pressures.
Mature students on access programmes - until the mid-90s a growth area - have been hard-hit by the introduction of tuition fees.
"We've seen a significant decline. Our access programme has been reduced by a third in the past two or three years," says Mr McLoughlin.
"It's not only us - if you speak to students coming through the access programmes to us, but also to some of the new universities in London, their adult market has been massively undermined."