At last, we’re redefining the duck-billed platypus

13th July 2018 at 00:00
For too long, FE has proved a difficult animal to classify – defined more by what it isn’t, rather than what it is. But the sector is starting to find its own identity, helped by the growth of its own homegrown research, writes Gary Husband

Had I been writing this 10 years ago, and sitting down to discuss the state of research in further education in the UK, I would most certainly have been penning a far more melancholy piece than I am about to.

Given the work carried out in the past decade to begin to combine the many aspects of FE as a sector, to banish old tropes and similes to the metaphorical bin (glass slipper anyone?) and to look beyond teaching and learning as a subject area worthy of exploration, it is hard to shed too big a tear; progress is being made. However, we still urgently need to talk about research in FE because we continue to refer to the study of the sector in terms of “progress”, “increased interest” or, indeed, “getting there”.

Yes, it is “getting there”, but it still has nowhere near the traction, attention and appeal as in other (arguably) over-researched sectors. Why? Well, to engage in the time-honoured fashion of discussing FE in terms of metaphors, I have a new one: I like to think (when feeling whimsical) of FE as a duck-billed platypus – not particularly for its features, but more for how it is defined. It is defined by what it is not: it’s not a bird but … it is a mammal but … it is hard to place exactly where it should fit into the broader understanding of its mammalian peers, but yet it has extensive appeal. FE has suffered for decades by being set up in opposition to neighbouring sectors, pegged and pigeonholed as something “other”.

It is in many ways (and sticking with metaphors) like the ocean between the continents of compulsory education, higher education and the mythical land of full-time gainful employment. It is permanently surrounded, not quite belonging to any, but in contact with all; it is a means of getting between the three destinations, endlessly eroding each coastline and able to buoy those who find themselves in it.

FE has always been thought of as hard to define, and this creates barriers to prevent a lot of potentially important work. However, I think that FE is no more difficult to define than schools and universities. It is time to accept FE as a defined sector that does what every other part of our education system does: it teaches and supports those who need it in the best way for them, in the best way it can.

This realisation is needed more than ever. The many hundreds of colleges across the UK – employing many thousands of people, who, in turn, support and teach many millions of fellow citizens – are having to face up to the government’s realisation that, moving forward into uncertain political and economic times (and yes, I mean Brexit), we may need FE more than ever. It is important – in fact, it’s very important.

Thankfully, times are changing. The past decade has seen substantial change in the relationship with research in FE. The most encouraging aspects of research involving FE are not done to it, but from within. Research is also moving away from the (important) study of teaching and learning (which, to be fair, has had a pretty good run relative to other aspects of FE) to the investment by industry in technological studies. You need only look to organisations such as Edinburgh College, which built (in partnership with industry) a solar meadow and brought in a fleet of electric vehicles to test the viability of making a campus effectively carbon-neutral. This is groundbreaking stuff, with students, industry partners and teaching and management colleagues all involved in one project that has led the way in Europe in developing and using renewable technology in large educational campuses. This is in FE, right in the heart of teaching and learning, but it is also a hub bringing together many important partners. It has even created jobs and launched careers.

Further to this, the ongoing work of research networks focusing on FE is attracting greater attention within the sector, largely because people in FE are driving the agenda. Useful partnerships between HE and FE have seen the development of organisations such the Learning and Skills Research Network and the Association for Research in Post-Compulsory Education – just two examples of organisations supporting and promoting enquiry in and on FE by publishing research work and holding FE-focused conferences.

Organisations such as the Edge Foundation and the Education and Training Foundation channel funding into dissemination, learning and development. Furthermore, this work promotes research within further education and, as a result, provides support and a platform for those who previously hadn’t undertaken research work to dip their toe in and expand their expertise.

Research is beginning to play an important part in FE and, crucially, what is learned within the sector promises true impact outside its now more crisply defined structures. FE is attracting the attention of research councils, and larger grants are being awarded for working with FE to understand perspectives that will have internationally important implications across the business, education, public and third sectors.

In short, these are promising times; FE is aware of its potential, worth and value. Work is afoot to make these projects, networks and communities sustainable. All we need now is to allow this positive shift to continue and, in so doing, further define FE by what it is and, indeed, what it is for.

Tes is media partner for the Association for Research in Post-Compulsory Education’s International Conference. This takes place from 13-15 July at Harris Manchester College, the University of Oxford

Dr Gary Husband is a lecturer in professional education and leadership at the University of Stirling

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