Orr, Kevin (2015) Widening Participation, Social Mobility and Higher Education in Further Education Colleges. In: BERA Annual Conference 2015, 13th - 15th September 2015, Queen's University Belfast. (Unpublished)

Further education (FE) colleges in England have been offering higher education (HE) courses for decades and today are an integral if small part of the English HE sector. Political reforms have been implemented to expand the provision of HE in FE, especially following the government’s Dearing Inquiry into HE (1996-97), but the proportion of HE students in FE colleges has remained stable at around ten per cent even as total numbers in HE have grown. The types of courses on offer in colleges have, however, altered markedly, and there are also wide regional variations in the provision of HE in FE. The provision of HE in FE is, nevertheless, often associated with widening participation and with enhancing social mobility. In 2011, for example, the influential Policy Exchange think tank specifically claimed that HE in FE can be an “engine for widening participation and social mobility”. Yet, there has been little research into the effectiveness of policies to increase enrolments in HE in relation to greater social justice. Whatever potential widening participation has to affect social mobility may be dependent on the type of HE institutions in which students enrol. With a specific focus on HE provision in FE colleges this paper questions some of the reductive assumptions about widening participation and its relation to upward social mobility and to social justice. This study set out to address the research question What is the evidence that HE in FE widens participation and enhances social mobility? Through analysis of recent statistical data produced by government agencies including the Higher Education Statistical Agency this study initially sought to separate widening participation from social mobility to examine the relationship between the two concepts within the particular context of college-based HE courses. The data on destinations examined for this paper suggest a mixed experience but one where full-time HE in FE students generally do worse than students in higher education institutions in terms of subsequent income or further study. This finding weakens claims that HE in FE enhances social mobility. Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that HE in FE does widen participation in education by allowing opportunities to study that do not exist elsewhere. The paper concludes that HE in FE provision may, therefore, be transformative for individuals’ lives, if not for England’s unequal society.

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