They would never have gone to university

‘They would never have gone to university’: the unique role that further education colleges play in widening access*

In the opening gambit of a presentation given at this year’s FACE conference (Sheffield Hallam University, 3-5 July, 2019), it was observed that the role of further education colleges in widening access is often overlooked (Baldwin, Raven and Webber-Jones, 2019). Indeed, the presentation title referred to them (a little unoriginally it has to be admitted) as the ‘Cinderellas’ of widening participation [WP]. Perhaps this comparative oversight has something to do with the scale of their HE provision. Colleges account for around 8-10 per cent of today’s undergraduate population (Parry et. al., 2012; Davy, 2016; Association of Colleges, 2019). At a time when much emphasis is placed on the numbers progressing to university-level study, the FE contribution can, 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 Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Collaborative Outreach Programme (DANCOP, 2019). This explored the progression challenges faced by level 3 learners from WP backgrounds studying in two East Midlands based FE colleges, and how these challenges could be addressed. (Level 3 is associated with post-16 study and includes A-levels, BTEC nationals and advanced apprenticeships). 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.

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. The practices underpinning this support have been explored in the research project commissioned by DANCOP. Those interested in finding out more are welcome to contact the author.

Blog by Dr Neil Raven


Association of Colleges. 2019. Key further education statistics

Baldwin, J., N. Raven, and R. Webber-Jones. 2019. Access Cinderella’s: further education colleges as engines of transformational change, FACE annual conference, 2019, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, 3-5 July.

Davy, N. 2016. ‘Let’s take college higher education to the next level’, Times Education Supplement, 11 July,

Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Collaborative Outreach Programme. 2019.

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,

An earlier version of this paper appeared in the AUA Newslink journal. 

Note: As part of a new study, we are interested in hearing from those working in or with FE colleges to promote the access agenda.  If you would be happy to contribute to this study, please contact me:

Scroll to Top