Together or Apart: Developing an HE culture in an FE college - Andy McGill

I have always been very proud of my college based higher education (CBHE) students’ accomplishments and maybe naively assumed that the experiences and qualifications they attained from our college would be viewed in the same way by the students themselves and employers alike, irrespective of where the degree was attained. However, upon conducting some preliminary reading for my own MA in Education dissertation, I was saddened to discover that there was much criticism regarding the general concept of CBHE and that in some quarters it had been likened to a ‘working-mans’ degree as opposed to a real degree (Davies, 2010). Subsequently, this became the driver and the inspiration behind my own dissertation, leading to the following research question: Is a CBHE Degree viewed as ‘second class’ when compared to a university Degree?

One area I explored was the concept of the HE culture created within further education colleges (FECs). I found an abundance of research (Lea & Simmons, 2012; Feather, 2011) examining the effectiveness of the students’ CBHE experience and the more I read, the more I found that I started to question the type of HE culture we had for our own CBHE provision.

Much of this literature discussed the development of a HE culture in relation to the presence and interaction between the mass of FE students and their HE counterparts.  Generally speaking, the findings reported that the mere presence of the FE students is perceived negatively by the CBHE students and that it hinders the presence of a HE culture. In an early study by the Higher Education Academy (2006) it reported that HE in FE students felt ‘swamped out’ by the FE students. This was confirmed in a more recent study conducted by Rapley (2014) where a student commented that:

No there isn’t a proper HE feel. I don’t think there is enough of us. Half the time I feel like kicking the students [FE students], they get on my nerves, they are so babyish (p.202).


One way that some senior managers have attempted to combat this issue is to separate their FE and HE provision, locating their HE provision in a separate building on the FEC campus, such as the University Centre Peterborough and the University Centre Grimsby. This seems like a logical solution, and certainly one that has been discussed at the college where I work.

Therefore, imagine my surprise whilst interviewing one of the participants for my dissertation when she completely contradicted the findings from the previous research and provided me with a perspective that I had not previously considered. Below is an extract from my transcript in response to asking for her thoughts on being around FE students:

It didn't really bother me. Didn't really notice. You could see the age gap on maturity level really but to be honest, it's quite nice. It's like when you're at sixth form in a school, you're kind of the top of the food chain. It's very similar to that as you walk through the corridors, they know that you're HE and they're FE. So, it's an opportunity to show them that they could get there eventually. Like it's kind of like the stepping up. 


She viewed herself as a role model to the FE students and wanted them to see her as she thought that it could be aspirational for the FE students and inspire them to follow suit and progress into HE. Subsequently, I spoke to more of our CBHE students and found a similar response, our CBHE students were not as concerned about the FE students as we had first assumed, fortunately, not one person reported wanting to kick them!

 In response to the findings, we are now setting up a project in which we aim to bring the FE and HE students closer together rather than further apart. Our plan is to provide the HE students with a greater level of responsibility and to act as mentors to the FE students, to really place them at the ‘top of the food chain’ and to record how this impacts upon the development of the HE culture. We recently ran a ‘pilot’ for this idea in a reception age multi-skills sports event that we host annually for three local schools. Our CBHE students each looked after a selection of FE students to successful run a series of multi-skills activities, with the preliminary findings from the CBHE students very positive. The intention now is to replicate this but for a longer duration, delivering weekly PE lessons to a local infant school.  

The impact of this collaboration will be monitored via a series of focus groups to ascertain if it is indeed having any bearing upon the HE culture present. If successful, a similar model will look to be replicated across more of our HE provision. Ultimately, as Feather (2011) reminds us, it is people who make a culture, not a ‘lifeless set of bricks and mortar’ (p. 19), and therefore, rather than put our HE students in one building and our FE students in another building, we are going to try and work with ‘our people’ to create something slightly more distinctive.

It is unlikely that initiatives like mine, alone, will be enough to counter the perception in some quarters that CBHE degrees are second class, but I believe they can go a long way to giving CBHE students a very positive learning environment, enabling them to spread the word of CBHE. What are other FECs out there doing within their CBHE? Have others deliberately tried to get their HE and FE provisions working collaboratively? It would be fantastic to hear what others are doing, what they have found or indeed what they think to the general concept.

Andy McGill is a CBHE lecturer at Lincoln College and has recently just completed his MA in Education at Bishop Grosseteste University.


Davies, P. (2010). “No more condescension, please.” Times Higher Education. Retrieved from 

Feather, D. (2011). Culture of HE in FE - exclave or enclave? Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 16(1), 15-30.

Higher Education Academy. (2006). “HE Experience of NQF BTEC Higher National Learners in Further Education Colleges.” Retrieved from

Lea, J., & Simmons, J. (2012). Higher education in further education: Capturing and promoting HEness. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 17(2), 179-193.

Rapley, E. (2014). Horses for courses, or a grumble in the jungle? HE in FE student perceptions of the he experience in a land-based college. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 19(2), 194-211.