Delivering HE in FE: Challenges and opportunities for growth

By UNIT-e   By UNIT-e   - Thursday 10 May 2018

Higher education (HE) in further education (FE) is a growing area of importance, with level 5 technical education and degree-level apprenticeships presenting colleges with a chance to expand into the higher education market. 

Delivering HE in FE is seen as a good opportunity for FE colleges yet for many, this two-tiered environment can present a difficult situation with challenging goals.

Reasons for low uptake

FE colleges cite a number of reasons why delivering HE in FE is not experiencing a significant uptake.  For example:

  • High HE student expectations: HE students paying fees of up to £9k per year expect value for money and excellent IT systems, Wi-Fi connections, standards of teaching and resources – and often tangibly more than is offered to FE students, putting a strain on FE finances and resources. 
  • Different application and reporting systems: FE and HE application processes are different and participating colleges are likely to be using separate systems that do not communicate with each other, placing training and resource demands on administrative staff. Separate methods of reporting within FE and HE are also causing headaches for some colleges who are delivering two different teaching models and have separate ways of keeping track of students, from the point of application through to completion of their course.
  • Positioning of HE courses in FE: Making the transition from school or college and going to a university that is miles away from home, living in halls or a student house and becoming independent from family life is still very much seen as ‘the thing to do’. Colleges hoping to attract HE students into their FE environment continue to face this traditional approach to HE.
  • Lack of HE/FE join-up: FE and HE join-up remains limited and the two tend to co-exist rather than work together. Competition for attracting students can also be an issue between the two. Universities market themselves on a national scale whereas colleges generally tend to focus more on the local areas, narrowing their reach. FE colleges recruit, on average, more than 78% of their HE learners from within their local LEP area.

Why embark on HE in FE?

With these challenges in mind, why would an FE college embark on a HE in FE programme? Particularly so when new apprenticeship levy opportunities are now available – a great chance to increase awareness of the college and grow revenue – and through following a familiar FE framework.

A recent report published by the Higher Education Commission, entitled ‘One size won’t fit all: The challenges facing the office for students’ reveals that HE in FE opens up HE education to those who want or need to access it in an untraditional way, limiting diversity and social mobility. Plus we know that HE in FE is a great way to create new or improved funding streams for colleges – not to mention addressing local skills gaps where colleges have a deep insight into employment challenges in their area.

Questions to ask before progressing

If your college hasn’t already ventured into the HE in FE market, you will most likely have discussed it and it may even be on your horizon. If so, clear and useful questions to ask yourself before progressing include:

  • Can you capitalise on this opportunity or in doing so are you putting your college at risk?
  • What really distinguishes you from what a university can offer?
  • How can you widen HE student participation / what types of students could you recruit?
  • Can you deliver on HE student expectations whilst managing internal resource efficiently?

A collaborative not competitive approach is key

Clearly there is an appetite to deliver HE in the FE environment and many believe this is a good opportunity for colleges. Yet it must be realistically deliverable without falling short on staff and student expectations. Leaders within the sector advise that joined-up systems and processes and a collaborative – rather than competitive – approach is the answer to providing a positive experience. The outcome must be effective and seamless for all in order for the programme to succeed.  

Thanks to Dan Shaffer, Andy Youell and Mark Breadner for their contribution to this topic during the Mixed Economy panel at the UNIT-e National Conference.