02 SES 17 C, Higher level vocational education: the route to high skills and productivity as well as greater equity? An International Comparative Analysis
England lacks a coherent vocational tertiary sector (Wolf 2016), unlike many of its European counterparts, but Higher Education (HE) courses have been provided in England’s further education (FE) colleges for over a century (Bailey and Unwin, 2014). FE colleges are where most initial vocational education and training occur in England and college-based HE (CBHE) is also mostly vocational (degrees in childcare, diplomas in engineering). The proportion of CBHE within overall HE in England has remained stable at close to 10% for decades (Avis and Orr 2016), whether CBHE has been actively promoted by government or not. Despite this, CBHE in England is in a contradictory position. Colleges claim that their courses are authentic HE, comparable to those offered in universities (Lea and Simmons 2012), while at the same time claiming their courses are distinctive from university provision because CBHE widens participation to HE for local people and provides high-skilled workers for the local economy (Widdowson 2017). These claims, moreover, are often repeated by national policymakers (Parry 2016). This is an important moment to review such claims, with new policy proposals encouraging on the one hand a key role for colleges in promoting a highly competitive market in the HE arena (DBIS 2016), whilst alternative policy proposals are intent on creating a binary divide between academic and vocational education pathways (DBIS and DfE 2016). This paper analyses the implications for the future by examining current statistics, policy and research, using Marginson’s (2016, 413) concept of “vertical ‘stretching’ of stratification in competitive [high participation systems of HE]”. The available evidence indicates that students on CBHE courses are more likely to be mature, part-time and to live in areas that have lower participation in HE than students on university courses (ETF 2016, 22-23), suggesting a distinctive widening participation role. There is, however, much less evidence of the connection between CBHE and the local economy, despite the vocational focus of most of these courses. That vocational CBHE courses have persisted for so long, however, suggests that they have an important role to play as part of a wider tertiary education system, but this role may not be one that centres on a distinctive vocational and labour-market oriented focus. This paper, therefore, goes on to consider the strengths and limitations of the conflicting directions for future college-based HE in England, that are suggested in the latest policy documents from the UK government.
Avis, J. & Orr, K. (2016) HE in FE: vocationalism, class and social justice, Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 21:1-2, 49-65 Bailey, B. & Unwin, L. (2014) Continuity and Change in English Further Education: A Century of Voluntarism and Permissive Adaptability, British Journal of Educational Studies, 62:4, 449-464, DOI: 10.1080/00071005.2014.968520 DBIS (2016) Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, London: HMSO. DfE and DBIS (2016) The Post-16 Skills Plan, London: HMSO. ETF (2016) The Local Impact of College-Based Higher Education, London: ETF. Lea, J. & Simmons, J. (2012) Higher education in further education: capturing and promoting HEness. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 17:2, 179-193. Marginson, S. (2016) The worldwide trend to high participation higher education: dynamics of social stratification in inclusive systems. High Education72: 413. doi:10.1007/s10734-016-0016-x Parry, G. (2016) College higher education in England 1944–66 and 1997–2010 London Review of Education DOI: 10.18546/LRE.14.1.09 Volume 14, Number 186-105. Widdowson, J. (2017) A message from our chair. Available on line at http://www.mixedeconomygroup.co.uk. Accessed 20 June 2017. Wolf, A. (2016) Remaking Tertiary Education: can we create a system that is fair and fit for purpose? London: Education Policy Institute.
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