College Higher Education – The Overlooked Option?

When talking to students about their options after they have completed their level 3 course I always make the point of using the term higher level learning, rather than “university”. One obvious reason for doing this is that most further education colleges deliver higher education courses. Although, if you trawl through the majority of general information on higher level study aimed at prospective students if college HE is mentioned it’s often as an after-thought.  It’s not surprising then that when speaking to college learners they are often unaware of the HE opportunities colleges offer, at times even at their own institution. 

Students may be surprised to learn that there are more than 1 in 10 HE learners study in a further education college, amounting to approximately 151,000 students nationally (AoC College Key Facts 17/18). The vast majority of colleges also offer apprenticeships and an increasing number are engaged in higher and degree apprenticeships.

The majority of college HE learners are studying vocational courses including foundation degrees, HNCs/Ds and higher level professional qualifications. Progression to a full honours degree (often known as “top up”) is possible on successful completion and there are usually arrangements in place with one or more universities onto a range of provision. It is worth noting that some colleges offer undergraduate degrees in collaboration with a university partner and a small number have their own degree awarding powers.

Over 300 colleges offer HE (including all of our Linking London FE partners), ranging from less than 100 students to more than 3,000. Colleges also attract proportionately more students from lower participation neighbourhoods than universities and therefore play an important role in improving social mobility. College HE learners are more likely to study locally, according to the AoC the average distance between home and college is 17 miles compared with 52 miles for those at university.

There are a number of potential reasons why a student may want to consider studying a higher level qualification at a further education college. Research commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) found that the major factors influencing college HE student enrolment is accessibility and controlling living costs whilst studying – college HE courses are usually very competitively priced.  In addition, students can usually expect more contact time with tutors and smaller class sizes. A number of courses are offered on a flexible and part-time basis (although this has declined) and as you would expect, based on their vocational offer, have good links with employers. 

In terms of what students can study, a wide range of higher level subjects are offered by colleges. In London, the majority of colleges offer business and IT higher level courses, and education related courses, along with art and design courses which are also popular. Other subject areas include biological sciences, construction, engineering, law, media and a range of subjects allied to medicine.  A number of professional qualifications at higher level are also offered which are usually occupationally specific, for example accounting, counselling, management and teaching assistants.

In terms of students’ experience of studying HE in a college, ten colleges achieved 100% satisfaction in the National Student Survey, outperforming a number of leading universities in the 2017 survey.  In the first set of Teaching Excellence Framework ratings, of the 104 colleges entered, the majority achieved gold (14) or silver (46).

While college students may not get the full “campus experience”, including access to a range of extra-curricular activities, many colleges have arrangements in place enabling students to access validating universities facilities during their course and some have set up their own student unions.

In terms of what Linking London is doing to raise the profile of College HE, we continue to run our popular HE in FE Practitioner Group to support partners with developing and promoting their offer and have been working on a London College HE prospectus which will shortly be made available to partners. We also ensure that Linking London and NCOP IAG resources, aimed at both staff and students, include details of College HE for students considering their next steps after level 3.