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Higher education in further education: A bridge to widening participation?

Jodie Trotman, Lecturer at Bridgend College

Widening participation in higher education (HE) among underrepresented social groups has been a focus of successive UK governments since the 1960s. But is this actually being achieved?

Delivering HE within a further education (FE) college setting offers a potential ‘bridge’ by increasing accessibility in terms of locality and flexibility of course delivery, and appealing to learners with additional commitments such as employment and caring responsibilities. These ‘non-traditional’ learners include first-generation students, mature students, disabled students, single parents, and those from low-income and minority ethnic groups (Crosling et al., 2008). They are more likely to be studying part-time and to have come from areas of low engagement in higher education.

The Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) (2022) estimates that about 7 per cent of HE students in the UK study in FE colleges (HESA, 2022). However, the HE-in-FE sector is considered underresearched and neglected, which is limiting the opportunity to review its potential role in widening participation in HE.

‘Delivering HE within a further education college setting offers a potential “bridge” by increasing accessibility in terms of locality and flexibility of course delivery, and appealing to learners with additional commitments such as employment and caring responsibilities.’

As part of my doctoral research into the benefits and challenges of delivering HE-in-FE, a pilot study was conducted with staff in an FE college in South Wales to find out how the delivery in this setting impacts on widening participation. Findings will inform the development of focus groups with learners. To offer context to this study, in the academic year 2019/20, 26 per cent of learners were from the highest areas of deprivation. The proportion of adults qualified to level 3 (20 per cent) and to levels 4 to 6 (31 per cent) were both below the Welsh averages (62.2 per cent and 41.6 per cent respectively). Therefore, the setting offers potentially transferable data to other areas with lower levels of higher education among the population. Data was collated through interviews with seven staff members involved in delivering the HE curriculum at both an operational and strategic level.

Findings from interviews highlighted the needs of HE-in-FE learners, with one participant sharing:

a lot of our students tend to be mature students so they’re people who haven’t necessarily gone through your traditional route through to HE. They might have worked for a few years and then decided they want to come back to education.

Their lack of confidence in their identities as learners was noted, supporting Bourdieu’s (1986) concepts of habitus and cultural capital and suggesting that this group of learners express doubt as to whether they can access and achieve at university level.

Benefits of local campuses and part-time delivery was emphasised by another participant:

‘they’ve got families, they might have jobs, they’ve got things that tie them to this area which is why they don’t want to look at that extra travel.’

These demands will be intensified during the current climate, with significant increases in the cost of living.

Lea and Simmons (2012) discuss the distinctiveness of HE-in-FE in offering supportive pedagogic relationships, enabled via the significantly smaller class sizes than with traditional higher education cohorts. This claim was supported in the interviews with one participant stating:

One of the main things for the college is that the groups are quite small; in a university you might be in a lecture theatre with 200 people or whatever and you don’t have that that one-to-one relationship with the tutor that you get at the college.’

While many traditional learners will transition effectively from school to HE institutions, some individuals require a platform to support engagement into HE. As advocated by our Higher Education Lead:

it’s about building up confidence … a lot of people come to us because they’re not quite ready for the full university experience, but they just need a couple of years, almost like preparing them for their next step.

Rocks and Lavender (2018) proposed that engaging in higher education through further education serves as a ‘catalyst’ for growth, not only intellectually but also socially and emotionally. With current challenges facing education, exacerbated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the escalating cost of living, now is an opportune time to review HE-in-FE provision and the opportunities it opens.


Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. G. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241–58). Greenwood Press.

Crosling, G., Thomas, L., & Heagney, M. (2008). Improving student retention in higher education: The role of teaching and learning. Routledge.

Higher Education Statistics Agency [HESA]. (2022). College HE.

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

Rocks, E., & Lavender, P. (2018). Exploring transformative journeys through a higher education programme in a further education college. Education and Training, 60(6), 584–595.