Why Principal’s Don’t Do IT - HE in FE

Feb 2020

Why Principal’s Don’t Do It – Higher Education Courses in Further Education Colleges

Just over 10% of higher education (HE) is delivered in Further Education (FE) colleges in England with a higher proportion of part time study to full time(HESA 2014).  This proportion has only marginally increased in the last 10 years.  Yet arguably, FE is in a better position to increase their numbers by recruiting widening participation type students than universities can.  Colleges deliver a much higher proportion of two year Foundation Degrees and HND/Cs which ought to be more attractive to hesitant HE applicants? (HESA 2014) Most FE colleges recruit most of their HE learners from their local area and thus in many cases already have many level three students studying at their institution. Most educational institutions are finding that their funding is being restricted but FE colleges appear to be squeezed most.  FE colleges do not have the same kudos or clout than the schools sector or universities have in defending against funding cuts.  In fact Prof Alison Wolf (2015) has recently argued that some of HE funding should be diverted to FE colleges.

 It was suggested by BIS in 2012 that there was little evidence of overall growth in college-taught HE. They found that there is evidence that some individual colleges have seen a growth in undergraduate numbers but expansion in the post-Dearing years has proved difficult to achieve. One explanation they gave has to do with the specificity of the local and regional markets for students and for courses sought by employers. A second has to do with low visibility and status of higher education in FECs. A third explanation is in terms of the two-sector structure and organisation of the system which was designed to keep HE and FE in separate sectors. Lastly, there is the argument (advanced by HEFCE) that some colleges have been insufficiently strategic in their planning and management of higher education. We believe that another reason why FE colleges have not increased the number of HE students is to do with the relationship between them and their local schools.  School Heads are keen to invite universities to visit their school but often see local FE colleges as competition and are thus reluctant to invite them to the school in case they lure away their 6th formers to the college. This is a particular problem for FE colleges because they are more likely to recruit most of their HE students from the local area. We would suggest that there is another more direct reason which is to do with managerialism and the pressure on FE principals and senior managers to behave in a business-like – in a finance led way rather than to meet the needs of people in their geographic area. 


Consequently, on that basis, why don’t principals take the £9000 a student that universities get rather than the £3500 for an FE student?  They do not because, firstly colleges are reluctant to charge £9000 as they believe this will price them out of the market and thus most charge around £6000 or less and secondly HE student groups tend to be smaller than HE groups. Moreover, FE colleges get a proportionally a higher number of ‘widening participation’ students who tend to need more support and are thus more expensive.  Thus overall an HE group in an FE college will generally make a smaller surplus or even a larger deficit.


Why the cycle doesn’t break

Both writers have formerly, at different times been the HE Manager at a medium sized FE college to the East of the East Midlands which is in an advantageous position to attract hesitant HE applicants because it is on the edge of a large POLAR3 coldspot covering the fen area of south Lincolnshire and north Cambridgeshire.  Research carried out in the college had shown that a high proportion of those studying on level 3 courses such as A levels and BTEC National qualification were the first in the family to do so.  However, one of the writers carried out an analysis of those applying to the college to take HE courses mapped against the post codes in the cold-spot and discovered that very few of those applicants came from those areas of low participation in HE.

The college had delivered HE courses for about 30 years and over that time had gradually expanded the number of programmes, following a strategy that the college had an obligation to provide vocational HE courses to its own level 3 students and those in the locality who did not wish to go away to university.  There are no local universities – the nearest is over 50 miles away.  Attempts had been made to provide an HE course for all the FE curriculum areas and had been reasonably successful in some areas and particularly with art and design.  However, some HE courses created had only been successful in recruiting 3 or 4 students.  Nevertheless, attempts had been made to persevere with such courses so at any one time there would be two or three courses with low numbers.  No course ever exceeded 20 students.  Often the courses that recruited well were those where the course leader also taught on the equivalent level 3 course and thus was able to encourage those who were reluctant to go to university that they could take a two year HE course in the ‘safety’ of the college and then top up to a university in their third year. However, this was a bit ‘hit and miss’.  Most local schools with sixth forms were not prepared to allow us to speak to their pupils about HE because, if they were grammar schools a two year HE course was not going to be suitable for their pupils and if they were a comprehensive school with a sixth form then they were in competition with the college and would not let us in. Heads of schools are judged on the destinations of their pupils and thus would benefit if more proceeded onto HE but presumably competition from the college was a greater managerial risk.

In addition, as the proceeds of HE courses was about 1 million pounds a year and the FE budget was over 12 million pounds, the curriculum and other managers were much more focussed on FE courses and thus HE courses were perceived as much less important although they were seen as a good alternative funding stream (but with small classes and unfamiliar and complex administrative and quality assurance systems).


What have we done?

For both writers, the HE management role formed only a small part of their job but both were very committed to the strategy that the college should be providing HE courses for those who did not want to go away to university. One of the writers was in an advantageous position because another part of his job was to manage and give advice to students on applying to university through UCAS.  About three hundred students at the college apply to university every year. Thus he was able to see what proportion of students from level 3 courses in the college were applying to university and which individual students were not.  He was also able to see what grades were predicted for all those students and identified that in many groups some of the most able were not applying through UCAS.  Most of this information was available by the middle of December so he was able to advise curriculum managers and student advisors of students who had the potential to do well at university but did not appear to be applying.  Similarly, by mid-January when the UCAS application window closes, he was able to identify those students who were on level three feeder courses for our own HE programme who had not applied to university and thus advise the HE programme leader to speak to that student about the opportunity.

In 2013 both writers and the principal considered whether we should increase our HE full time fee from £6000 to £6500 and produce an Access Agreement to release funds of up to £500 for each HE enrolment to spend on increasing enrolments by further targeted widening participation action.  We were concerned about deterring those hesitant HE applicants by increasing the fee but we discussed this with current students who indicated that as they received a loan anyway they would not have been unhappy to pay a slightly higher fee.  We produced an Access Agreement which was accepted to come into effect from September 2015. We decided to allocate half of the extra £500 raised for each student to two areas.  Most of the money is to be used to target both in and out of college learners at the beginning of their level 3 courses who appear to be at risk.  That is those learners who live in the POLAR 3 cold spots.  The rest of the money is to be spent on subsidising transport costs as we had identified that one of the main reasons for students leaving the course is because they find they cannot afford the high cost of transport from the Fens in to college. Subsequently, when we wrote the 2nd access agreement to come into effect in 2016 we also included targeted advice and support for students on level 3 courses who are in or have recently left Care. Potentially, one of the concerns that a college principal will have in these circumstances is that this extra money is to be used to encourage students to progress onto higher education who would normally have done so. If the college is successful in doing this it might mean that more of these young people progress to university but may not decide to take up HE courses at the college.  The college will have increased its fees, possibly deterred some wavering applicants from applying and not received any more students on to its own HE courses.  To widen participation in this way is virtuous but from an economics and managerialistic perspective might not be sensible.

We decided to focus on care leavers in response to OFFA encouragement but at the time one of the writers requested details of all students in the college on the second year of a level 3 course who was in care or was a care leaver.  Only one student in that cohort met that criteria so the writer asked if she would meet with him and it transpired that she had been considering applying to university but was not sure whether she would fit in and whether going to university was really for somebody like her.  This happened in March which was well past the UCAS application closing date.  As we discussed her situation it became plain that she did want to go to university and despite being a really outgoing student she lacked the confidence to put together her application, write a personal statement and choose universities and courses.  Consequently, the writer met with her weekly over the period of about a month, she successfully applied for the area in which she wanted to study and is now at university. The intention now is that Care Leavers will be identified earlier in the UCAS application cycle.

The college has now appointed a full time HE manager who is starting to spend his time in organising and carrying out the targeting of learners as we have planned.  He is however, having some difficulty in getting the college finance manager to release the OFFA funds as money is very tight in college at the moment and is still having difficulty convincing local school Heads that they should allow him to talk to 6th formers who have decided not to go to university.

It will be interesting to see whether the college does recruit more students from the local cold spots. 







Wolf, A., Issues and ideas. Heading for the precipice: can further and higher education funding policies be sustained?, The Policy Institute at King’s College London, June 2015.

HESA Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education 2014

Understanding higher education in further education institutions BIS 2012