by Neil Raven
In a previous blog, I explored the reasons why some students on level 3 (advanced) professional and applied courses decide against higher education. Those whose views were sought came from a further education college (FEC) located in the East Midlands. FECs are significant providers of such (vocational) courses in England (Archer, 2023, UCAS, 2023). Yet, their HE progression rates are typically lower than those reported by schools and sixth form colleges (GOV.UK, 2023). Indeed, the desire to address this differential has been highlighted by the Office for Students (OfS, 2022), including through the work of the Uni Connect programme (Raven, 2023). It also chimes with the government’s levelling up scheme, and the view that FECs are key players in addressing inequalities in regional skills levels (OfS, 2022). However, acknowledging the rationale amongst FE college students for rejecting HE provides only half the picture. Any initiative that seek to widening higher education (HE) participation should also take account of the drivers for progression amongst the same groups of learners, since a good number of FE college students doing vocational programmes go on to some form of higher-level study, although many more have the potential to do so. This was one of the key areas explored in a recent research project and discussed in a book chapter from which the findings in this blog are taken (Raven, 2023).
Method and approach
This research gathered the views of students in the second (and final) year of their level 3 professional and applied courses. The sample comprised 110 students from two FE colleges: one in the Midlands (60 participants), the other in Eastern England (50 participants). In addition to gaining insights into their motivations for pursuing higher-level study, the research looked at the support these students had received. A questionnaire was used for this purpose, with answers captured in a one-to-one meeting between my fellow researcher and each participant. Whilst these meetings required time to organise, this approach to the administration of the questionnaire ensured that all the questions would be understood and considered by those who volunteered to take part in the study (Raven, 2023: p59). To facilitate comparison – and draw out common themes – we chose participants who were pursuing the same three subject areas at each college. These comprised sport, animal management and child care, which were amongst the most popular options offered and where the ambition at both institutions was for more students to take the HE route.
Three broad sets of motivations for progressing onto higher-level study were voiced by participants across both colleges and amongst the three subject areas. The first set concerned the learning opportunities HE presented. These included gaining more skills, ‘furthering and improving one’s knowledge,’ and acquiring a higher-level qualification (Raven, 2023: p64). The second set of drivers related to ‘the experience’ a university education would offer. Here, participants talked about the social aspects of HE life, including the chance to make friends, gain greater independence, and acquire ‘new life skills.’ The third group of responses focused on the improved ‘employment prospects’ arising from going to university (Raven, 2023: p64). A higher education, it was argued, would open up ‘better job opportunities’, and enhance one’s chances of securing a well-paid job. In addition, it would enable the pursuit of a chosen career and help secure access to sought after professions (Raven, 2023: pp64-65).
Participants also provided insights into the ‘sources of next-step guidance’ that had proved valuable in their decision to pursue a higher education (Raven, 2023: p70). Five sources were discussed, although not every participant alluded to all of these. They comprised the support provided by family members, including ‘parents, sisters and brothers, [along with] extended family members and relatives’, as well as ‘friends.’ (Raven, 2023: p70). Online sources of information were also discussed, including the UCAS website. In addition, a number of participants talked about ‘the insights gained from the work experience’ component of their courses. The guidance and encouragement provided by college staff was also highlighted, in particular that offered by tutors and careers teachers (Raven, 2023: p70). However, surprisingly few made reference to outreach activities, including campus visits and university open days.
Whilst these findings are from a small study, the consistency in responses amongst participants who came from three different subject areas and were studying at two separate colleges suggests that they are of significance. Moreover, the motivations identified are consistent with those that have been discussed in other studies (Wiseman et al, 2017). The Uni Connect programme is seeking to raise progression rates from FE colleges (OfS, 2022). These findings suggest the value of ensuring any support offered considers and engages with the drivers likely to facilitate participation. They also draw attention to a gap that could be filled through the provision of outreach interventions (Raven, 2023).
That said, more research is needed. The questionnaire used in this study proved an efficient way of gathering the views of the majority of students on the designated courses. However, the deployment of focus groups, or semi-structured interviews, with a sample of the same students would enable a more detailed exploration of HE drivers, and a closer consideration of the nature and effectiveness of the support they received, and the types of outreach that would be of greatest benefit to them and their peers.
Neil Raven is an educational consultant and researcher in widening access. Contact him at email@example.com.
Thank you to the students at both colleges who participated in this study. Thank you also to Dr John Baldwin for overseeing the questionnaire survey.