New paper: further education in England needs more policy attention, says study

Widening participation goals in higher education would be improved if further education colleges in England were given more policy attention, according to a new CGHE working paper published today.

This is one of a number of policy lessons from a cross-national comparison focusing on how England and the US could reduce social class and racial/ethnic differences in higher education access and success.

The study says that for both countries, goals of widening participation in higher education by class and race/ethnicity are hampered by sharp inequalities in access to higher education, entrance into the most selective institutions, graduation from higher education, and economic success post-graduation.

The study, by Professor Kevin J. Dougherty from Columbia University and Professor Claire Callender from the UCL Institute of Education/Birkbeck College, makes a number of policy recommendations for both England and the US.

Policy recommendations for England

Further education

Further education colleges account for roughly 8.5 per cent of higher education students in all institutions in England, yet received too little mention in recent government papers outlining proposals for higher education reform, according to the study.

Under both Labour and Conservative governments, attention has been focused instead on achieving greater access by disadvantaged students to selective universities, particularly the Russell Group.

Students in England with vocational qualifications have a higher risk of dropping out of university or choosing not to go to university at all. The study recommends the development of ‘transfer agreements’ enabling movement from vocational training into a wide range of university first-degree programmes. Currently such agreements only apply to a small set of universities and so are limited in scope. The study also recommends promoting linkages between further education colleges and highly selective universities.

Alternative providers

The study warns of the risks of expanding England’s for-profit higher education sector. The UK government has called for an expansion of alternative providers of higher education, including for-profits, to stimulate greater competition. But support for for-profit colleges has been declining in the US in recent years, and the country has had to develop a regulatory structure to reconcile government provision of financial aid to students attending for-profit colleges and the dangers of poor quality provision by those institutions.

Grant aid

Another recommendation is that England increase its use of need-based grant aid in the form of bursaries and scholarships. This is because evidence shows that working class and minority students are wary of taking out loans, even if repayment is on an income-contingent basis.

The study’s additional recommendations for England are:

  • a greater policy focus on school decisions (as these shape future higher education opportunities);
  • a greater use of contextualised admissions and a reconsideration of what constitutes merit in university admission;
  • a sharpened consideration of the possible downsides of performance funding.

Policy recommendations for the US

Income-contingent loans

US graduates owe $1.3 trillion in student loans, and seven million borrowers are in default. The study recommends that the US make more use of income-contingent loans to address this funding crisis.

Access agreements

The US would also benefit from following England in the use of access agreements, according to the study. These govern the outreach efforts of universities, encouraging them to make more extensive efforts to reach students in secondary and primary school, and in England are overseen by the public non-governmental Office for Fair Access to Higher Education (the Office for Students from April 2018).

Professor Kevin J. Dougherty from Columbia University, co-author of the study, said:

‘England and the US have many similarities, but also instructive dissimilarities, with respect to their policies for higher education access and success. Because of this, each country can learn a lot from the other with regard to reducing social class and racial/ethnic differences in higher education access and success.’

Professor Claire Callender from the UCL Institute of Education/Birkbeck College, co-author of the study, said:

‘There is much to be learnt from the US’s affirmative action policies which have helped create more diverse student bodies, especially at selective colleges and universities. In England, discussion about contextualised admissions at such universities focuses on the benefits of diversity for social mobility and social justice. This is important in the US too, but far greater attention is paid to the benefits of exposing more privileged students to alternative social perspectives and to the pedagogical benefits of diversity.’