The opportunities, challenges and collaborations between further education and higher education relating to access and participation.
Following the NEON Summer Symposium – Access, Participation and the Post-Covid Tertiary System – in July 2021, Head of WP, Outreach and Projects at University Centre Leeds (UCLeeds), Dr Jo Tyssen, shares her thoughts on access and participation within college-based higher education (HE) and the value of engagement in memberships like NEON, as a college-based HE (CBHE) provider.
Being a CBHE provider offers opportunities for student engagement, that involves both further education (FE) and HE students; supporting access, retention, and progression. However, at the same time this can bring challenges that may not be encountered by universities.
As part of the NEON Summer Symposium 2021, the WP and Outreach team at University Centre Leeds (UCLeeds) highlighted some of the opportunities and challenges to outreach good practice between FE and HE.
We are part of Leeds City College (LCC); one of the largest FE Colleges in the country with more than 20,000 students (of which roughly 1400 are HE), and one of the biggest providers of apprenticeships regionally. This provides substantial opportunity for outreach, with collaborative working with FE departments, and FE and HE students themselves, in developing evidence-based programmes and projects, innovative technological approaches, and policy development.
Having close links with FE colleges, both with Luminate Education Group and externally across West Yorkshire, where there are large proportions of students from underrepresented groups, provides an excellent opportunity for the establishment of sustained progressive programmes of outreach activity. There is an inherent understanding of the needs of learners from underrepresented groups but also the wide-ranging types of vocational qualifications being studied, including T levels, apprenticeships, and higher technical qualifications (HTQs), as well as the progression routes and sector needs associated to them.
Collaborations between UCLeeds and the FE colleges have been hugely impactful and include; Progression Toolkit; collaborative taster days, HE Study Skills module; 1-2-1 application/transition support; EAL/ESOL support sessions; Teacher and Careers Advisor sessions; Parent and Carer sessions; Care Experienced and Estranged Student support; Student Ambassador Q&As and vlogs; Aspire High (a per-assisted study support programme); and our Step Ahead programme (next steps, employability, resilience and confidence). Many of these, as well as open events, include those considering post-16 options and so a collaborative approach helps to support early outreach.
Other opportunities arising from close FE and HE relationships include student consultation in the design of outreach activity and support services, course development and validation, joint Student Union commitment to student engagement, 1-2-1 sustained support, mentoring, and an emphasis on industry links and career pathways.
Finally, being part of a Google Reference College, awarded for our use of G-Suite for Education in exemplary and innovative ways, made the transition to online delivery very smooth, and the response of students to continue engaging was impressive. Engagement of our FE and HE students was maintained, and in places increased, as a result.
However, being a CBHE provider also brings challenges; including resources and funding, recruitment processes (in relation to student ambassadors), staff and student perceptions of CBHE, evaluation capacity, and HE student representation in an FE institution (particularly in regard to the Student Union).
To highlight a further challenge, although, as an institution we perform well in terms of WP and outreach, we do find that engagement through Student Ambassadors and Group Reps, for example, does not reflect this diversity. Often, it is because students from underrepresented groups are local commuter students, typical of CBHE, and have several commitments outside of the classroom and so do not wish to engage in anything further. They don’t necessarily identify as being a student when they leave the classroom as they are then a parent or employee for instance. We are seeing a slow change in this and the move online has made engagement more accessible for many students. But there is still some way to go.
Another challenge is the lack of benchmarking for CBHE providers in the sector, and the disproportionate focus on universities compared to CBHE within sector-wide discourse. Colleges have been pertinent to HE reform and widening participation and yet are overshadowed, in literature and policy, by a bias for evidence from universities. We have proven success in widening participation, with 45.01% of the current cohort being from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, 64.8% being from IMD quintiles 1 or 2, and 58% of are students are over the age of 21; many being first in family to enter HE and/or commuter students. As such I believe we provide an example of the value of CBHE providers participating in sector-wide discourse to share insight and practice.
I was taken aback by how welcoming forums and memberships have been in accepting college-based representatives but also by their surprise at this engagement where they often see low participation from CBHE providers in these sector-wide spaces. Opportunities provided by the likes of NEON provide a means for mobility within the sector and, although it took a leap of faith and institutional confidence to be able to increase our own participation, it is something we have fully valued.
It has provided an opportunity to represent the voice of CBHE providers, something often lacking in other forums. Being able to share practice, opportunities and challenges has opened dialogue with university colleagues and provided discourse more reflective of the sector. It is good to be feel like an equal player in the field, to share common experiences, and to offer new insights to the wider sector.