Often overlooked but essential: FE colleges and widening access

By Dr Neil Raven – neil.d.raven@gmail.com.

It is easy to overlook the role that further education colleges can play in widening access (Baldwin, Raven and Webber-Jones, 2020). Perhaps this comparative oversight has something to do with the scale of their HE provision. Colleges account for around 8-10 per cent of the undergraduate population (Parry et. al., 2012; Davy, 2016; Association of Colleges, 2019). When the emphasis is on absolutely numbers, the contribution that FE can make may, superficially at least, seem modest. *

However, a rather more qualitative perspective reveals the vital access role that colleges play. Certainly, their local significance was brought home to me while conducting research for a study commissioned by the DANCOP, the Uni Connect partnership for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire (Raven, 2021 and 2019). This explored the progression challenges faced by (advanced) level 3 learners from WP backgrounds studying in two East Midlands based FE colleges, and how these challenges could be addressed. During the course of this investigation – which began by interviewing college tutors and lecturers who were delivering courses at both FE and HE levels – interviewees talked of ‘a group [of students] who would never have gone to university’ were it not for the opportunities provided by their colleges.

The focus group discussions with students, which followed the tutor interviews, confirmed these claims. They also indicated why FE in HE was, in a number of instances, their only viable option. For some, this had to do with geographical proximity. HE provision on their doorsteps made it feasible to juggle the demands of studying with other commitments, including those associated with having a young family. It also ensured travel costs could be kept to a minimum and the expense of living away from home avoided – vital considerations to many from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. And, arguably, an even more salient point given the more recent cost of living crisis.

However, the distinct nature of college HE was also highlighted. The availability of ‘vocational options’ suited those who, one focus group participant observed, ‘might not be so academic’, whilst the provision of Higher National Certificates and Diplomas [HNCs and HNDs], as well as foundation degrees, gave students who were concerned about managing the transition to higher-level study the chance to experience HE on a more manageable scale, and to approach the goal of gaining a full degree through a series of less daunting intermediate steps.

In addition, the lower entry requirements often associated with college HE presented a progression opportunity for those whose previous experiences of education had been less rewarding. In this regard, one focus group participant spoke about wanting to go to university but of being ‘worried about the grades I needed. In my mind’, it was added, ‘I was set not to go to uni [but to] just get [a] job [instead]. And then this came up and I could get a degree!’

Finally, reference was made to the support that colleges offered at institutional and, perhaps more fundamentally, at subject-level. The latter, it was observed, was helped by the smaller classes associated with HE in FE, and, in many cases, the guidance of tutors who students had got to know – and trust – because they had previously taught them on their level 3 courses. This support, one focus group participant observed, ‘really helped me’. Indeed, it was added that it had ‘given me my dreams’ of being able to pursue a higher education. Those interested in finding out more about the research findings reported here are welcome to contact the author

Blog by: Dr Neil Raven – neil.d.raven@gmail.com


Association of Colleges. 2019. Key further education statistics, https://www.aoc.co.uk/about-colleges/research-and-stats/key-further-education-statistics.

Baldwin, J., N. Raven and R. Weber-Jones, 2020, ‘Access ‘Cinderellas’: further education colleges as engines of transformational change’, in S. Broadhead, J. Butcher,  E. Davison, W. Fowle, M Hill, L. Martin, S. Mckendry, F. Norton, N. Raven, B. Sanderson and S. Wynn Williams (eds). Delivering the Public Good of Higher Education: Widening Participation, Place and Lifelong Learning, London: Forum for Access and Continuing Education, 107-126.

Raven. N. 2021. ‘Making a difference: insights into effective HE progression practices in further education colleges’, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 23 (1): 79-101.

Raven, N. 2019. Further Education Colleges and Widening Access. Understanding and Addressing the Progression Challenge for Level 3 Learners from WP Backgrounds. Unpublished research report for the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Collaborative Outreach Programme.

Davy, N. 2016. ‘Let’s take college higher education to the next level’, Times Education Supplement, 11 July, https://www.tes.com/news/lets-take-college-higher-education-next-level.

DANCOP. 2023. https://www.teamdancop.co.uk/.

Parry, G., C. Callender, P. Scott and P. Temple. 2012. Understanding Higher Education in Further Education Colleges, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Research Paper Number 69, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/32425/12-905-understanding-higher-education-in-further-education-colleges.pdf.

* An earlier version of this paper was published in the FACE e-bulletin.  See N. Raven. 2019. ‘They would never have gone to university’: the unique role that further education colleges play in widening access’, FACE e-bulletin, 139 (August, 2019).


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