HE in FE: heavy, not lite - by Gail Hall

HE in FE: heavy, not lite

By Gail Hall

Reading the Times Higher blog University life: from 50 years ago to now (THE, 2019), most of the comments from contributors are about the price of beer, technology or the lack of it, accommodation and libraries, and not on the knowledge being gained.

But while knowledge is important, what is now recognised as a vital part of the HE experience is learning how to deal with that knowledge; how to identify and find what you need to know; how to decipher, choose what is relevant, reliable and truthful, and then how to apply it in a useful and productive way. After all, we’ve all heard the claim that what undergraduates learn in terms of knowledge in their first year will soon be obsolete by the time they finish their course.

In this think piece I want to articulate the positive ways that colleges with HE provision contribute to this type of learning environment.

Our students have transformative experiences but shouldn’t we be able to say this of all education? Our task is to continue to emphasise that transformation happens in all sorts of ways and to challenge the OfS measure of graduate salaries as the indicator of success. And to remember that higher education is not always just about getting a job.

We provide local opportunities and where we do it right we create these by considering our local labour market, consulting with employers and offering courses that will give graduates the best possible chance of these successful careers. But we can also spread our net wider where we have developed specialist courses that might attract students from further afield.

We obviously specialise in vocational education but again, this presents us with a challenge relating to perceptions and the negative connotation that has been attached to the word vocational. This negativity is largely tied up in a belief that vocational is the route you take when you aren’t clever enough to do academic qualifications and again makes it difficult for people to believe that this can be a positive choice. 

And it is sustained by schools whose processes funnel students into academic or vocational routes with little if any opportunity for fluidity across and between pathways, by careers services, and by parent culture where there seems to be increasing shame in admitting that your child is not going to university.

One approach is to stop using the word vocational and instead to talk about professional and or technical education but personally I would prefer to see us embrace and champion the word as it relates to its root, ‘vocation’, defined as “a person’s employment or main occupation, especially regarded as worthy and requiring dedication”.

The HE-lite label (Creasy, 2013) has a number of associations but generally suggests that a higher education achieved at a college is somehow less than that provided at a university. It is sometimes levelled at less investment in facilities and resources but often is associated with the lack of a research culture in colleges. As long as there is continued emphasis on, and popularity of, the traditional residential three-year degree the accusation that HE in an FE setting is a lesser experience is  one that we will need to keep fighting against. Scholarship is just one of the tools in our armoury that will enable us to do this.

So how should we brand ourselves?  Quite simply we need to emphasise what we are and not what we’re not. FE colleges are understandably quite focused on programme contribution rates but this is through the lens of what our students as units contribute to our bottom line. To counter this we need to have a clear narrative about what our contribution is to the experience and outcomes of those students and to our communities, labour markets and society as a whole. We really need a clear brand that we can communicate to students, parents, schools, careers advisors, colleges and employers. We need to re-establish our role unapologetically as a needed and valuable provider of higher education that just happens to take place in a further education college setting.

Whatever decisions we make about how we how we brand higher education at Leicester College, where I work, they are also  likely to be underpinned by the following tenets: stick to what you know, do it exceptionally well, in collaboration with industry experts and employers, and make it accessible for students. It’s courage, persistence and doggedness that will help us to achieve this when the temptation is to fall into the role of mini-me university.


Gail Hall is HE Academic Development and Enhancement Manager at Leicester College


Creasy, R. (2013) HE lite: exploring the problematic position of HE in FECs, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 37:1, 38-53.

Times Higher Education [THE] (2019) University Life: from 50 years ago to now [online] Available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/student/blogs/university-life-50-years-ago-now [Accessed 06.11.19].