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Twists on the higher road

Once upon a time, there were two colleges in Dundee - one teemed with laddies in overalls, while the other housed lecturing ladies in suits. Kingsway Technical College was home to joiners and painters and lads who could make an engine run sweetly; Commercial College's core was business, where Christina Hendricks prototypes in pencil skirts taught touch typing to music.

It's a cute stereotype. There's no doubt that there was a different ethos in each building - one where you got dirt in your fingernails and learnt a trade, the other high on the hill, where you bought a college scarf and were a bit of a poser.

That was long ago and in another country. Amalgamation means you're now likely to wander into Kingsway's splendid canteen and find a nice lad from the painting and decorating course chatting up an elfin babe from the modern dance course over a plate of mushroom risotto.

But in Beanoland, despite rebranding, Kingsway Campus is still fondly referred to as the Kingsway Techie. It's easy to change signage, not so easy to change perception.

The reality is that further education colleges offer wide and seamless opportunity. Find a suitable entry point and you may stay right to the end of the line with an HNC or HND - and sometimes further. In most areas now, though, the HNC is seen by students as a ticket to university. Articulation arrangements encourage this.

When I was teaching English at university first, it was unusual to find a student who'd come via the HNC route. I remember Anne in her first year. Her spelling, grammar and punctuation were first class and she could write lucidly. But she had no experience of critical analysis or literature. She did well, but it was a baptism of fire. Now, college courses are designed to allow learners to progress in their chosen field, if that is what they want to do.

With too few places and too many applicants, however, it's time to stop seeing university as the ultimate goal. The HNC tucked in the back pocket may be the best ticket. Students aren't listening, though. At heart, they are techie students who aspire to the place on the hill.

Sharon was a rough diamond, with weak literacy skills but plenty of bottle. During her two years at college, she improved her writing skills and emerged as a superb team player and motivator. She was a gift to any employer. She chose, instead of work, university. The right decision? While university is still seen as the place on the hill, maybe; and while employers still seek degrees, certainly. But perceptions are changing. You may have a degree, but can you use an apostrophe properly? Are you a good communicator?

With too many applicants and too few places, learners are reconsidering university. There's no doubt some students will come to college, perhaps seeing it as second best. But many others will come through choice to pursue their interests. Yes, many will spend a year in FE and use their ticket to journey to the place on the hill. Increasing numbers, I suspect, will see completion of the HNC as a ticket to take to the job market as evidence enough of their competence and employability.

Carol Gow is a former further education lecturer.

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