Higher Education Professional standards. Why they matter.  By Dan Amin

Higher Education Professional standards. Why they matter. 

Dan Amin

I believe that when a college practitioner first starts to engage with HE delivery, whether that be on day 1, day 100 or beyond, there is a sense of engaging with something different. Often have I heard it being said within the environs of the college sector that “HE is just like FE, except a bit harder”. As you can imagine, I disagree with this statement. Firstly, what is meant by ’harder’, and ‘harder’ for who? Students? Staff? Management? Governors? There are arguments for and against, for all of these stakeholders. However, I simply don’t think that HE is ‘just like’ FE. There are many common similarities, absolutely no doubt about that, and a lot of best practice that is evidenced in CHE is borne out of experiences from FE, however, there are many differences unique to HE delivery. 

The many think pieces and case studies to have come from the Scholarship Project, and subsequently, the Scholarship Framework, have highlighted the unique characteristics associated with the delivery of HE in colleges, for all stakeholders. It’s important to remember, though, when looking back through these, that what should be underpinning all those practitioners delivering CHE is a set of professional standards unique to them, irrespective of setting. The U.K Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) is that set of standards, and is relevant for all teaching and learning practitioners – whether they are working at a higher education institution, an alternative HE provider, or a further education college. 

So why do professional standards matter, and why should a CHE practitioner engage with, and adhere to them?  Professional standards should be something that a practitioner engages with, is guided by, and should reflect upon in order to understand whether they are meeting said standards as part of their own work. By engaging with them, they can also help to develop a sense of identity that the practitioner is indeed an HE practitioner, something vitally important for staff working in colleges.

The UKPSF and the ETF’s Professional Standards for FE Teachers hold many similarities; however, there are notable differences – the implications of quality assurance and quality enhancement for academic and professional practice; promoting participation in higher education; and acknowledging the wider context in which higher education operates. Even the ‘similarities’ e.g. programme delivery, assessment methodologies, engaging with research and scholarship are all based within the context of higher education for the UKPSF. By ensuring that they engage with these standards, the practitioner should be confident they are delivering a service and developing themselves in a way that is befitting of higher education.

One way of determining this, is through the fellowship scheme that aligns practitioners to various levels of engagement with the UKPSF; however, despite approximately 10% of HE students studying in further education colleges, only 1.3% of all fellows are college-based. So, it’s important, that staff should not only reflect on their own engagement with the professional standards, they should also reflect on whether they are being given the opportunity to engage with them. 

It’s vitally important that colleges with HE provision engage their staff with the UKPSF. Colleges that deliver HE programmes must be on the Office for Students Register, and as such must adhere to the various conditions set out in the Regulatory Framework for higher education in England. Particularly, Conditions B1 to B5 align with much of the UKPSF – delivery of well-designed courses that provide a high quality academic experience, and that meet academic standards in line with the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications; provision of support for all students from admission through to completion in order to benefit from HE; and to deliver successful outcomes for students, recognised and valued by employers. 

Many universities have accreditation schemes with Advance HE, whereby academic staff undertake a Post-graduate certificate in higher education or academic practice and are awarded fellowship upon completion. The ability to award your own staff fellowship through accreditation is a member benefit of Advance HE, and something that many universities take up, but most colleges don’t which could explain part of the disparity in the percentage of CHE students and CHE fellows. There are costs associated with accessing this member benefit, and many colleges will feel that it is not money well spent, if HE is not high up on their agenda; however, there are other methods by which colleges can, and should, engage HE staff with UKPSF, in order to ultimately enhance the student experience (which no doubt would be on any college’s mission statement). Does the college have a member of staff whose part of their remit is to be a professional standards ‘champion’? This might be someone who can help engage HE staff with UKPSF – through awareness raising, and fellowship application support, for example.

During my time as an HE Scholarship Development Manager in an FE college, I took it upon myself to try to be that ‘champion’ and had a modicum of success in engaging staff with the fellowship process. They saw great value in the recognition as a HE practitioner and a sense of belonging it brought, but more importantly appreciated the chance to reflect on their practice in relation to the UKPSF. Staff were sceptical at first, about carrying out the reflections, as they felt they would not be engaging with the UKPSF given they worked in a college, but many were left surprised by how much they were actually doing in a HE context. Importantly, the reflections helped them identify gaps in their practice and areas to focus on for the forthcoming academic year. The difficulty was engaging a larger population of staff, and therefore making a meaningful change to the college’s HE provision, something I think could have occurred with more senior buy-in and support. In addition to having a ‘champion’, do colleges have staff development specifically for HE staff, and if so – is it aligned to the UKPSF? This is something that truly needs senior support and buy in, but if established, can reap benefits for the staff involved and the impact on student outcomes.

Engagement with the UKPSF should be something that is prioritised for any college delivering HE, and should be on the radar as high up as the governing body, as they themselves have specific conditions as part of the OfS Regulatory Framework, including that the provider meets all the conditions expected of them. The UKPSF is also likely to undergo a refresh in the near future. The most current version is almost 10 years old, and it is likely that some of the standards will be revised. Colleges need to be involved in providing their stakeholder feedback in order to help shape the framework to meet their needs.

Irrespective of any changes to the standards, it is vitally important that all staff involved in delivering HE in colleges engage with them and receive the appropriate support and opportunity to do so. The UKPSF is there for everyone and is a proven means by which practitioners can enhance their practice and be rewarded for doing so through the fellowship scheme.


Dan Amin is Fellowship and Awards Adviser at Advance HE, and was previously part of the AoC’s Scholarship Project. 

More information about the UKPSF and the fellowship scheme can be found here: https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/guidance/teaching-and-learning/ukpsf