Jones, Glynn R (2017) An examination of the factors influencing students’ decisions to study HE in FE. In: SCUTREA 2017, 4-6th July 2017, Edinburgh University. (Unpublished)

Approximately one in 10 Higher Education (HE) students are studying their course at a Further Education (FE) college (Foster Report, DfES, 2005, BIS 2012) and the sector has been presented as having a significant role in supporting widening participation. Potentially, many of these students could have chosen to attend a university (Avis and Orr, 2016). This paper explores the decision-making of a group of young adults already studying HE in an FE environment and considers the factors influencing their participation decision. There has been much research into the reasons why those from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to participate in HE, with similar factors being cited as reasons why some choose to study HE within an FE environment. Whilst, much of this work has centred on Bourdieu’s concept of habitus and how individual dispostions frame the world differently (Ball, 2003; David, 2010; Reay, David and Ball, 2005), other research has focused on boundaries to participation; primarily attitudes to cost (Callendar, 2002), access to information (Smyth and Banks, 2012) and ‘fitting in’ (Reay, 2001). In a hierarchical HE sector the status of the chosen institution has significant impact and so there is concern that non-standard groups are overly represented in lower status institutions (Avis and Orr, 2016). Discourses of barriers to participation imply that such students are prevented from making the optimum choice by their self-censoring habitus and insurmountable structural barriers. This research acknowledges that habitus has a significant influence on the framing of the decision about where to participate in HE and recognises that the ‘barriers’ such as cost and ‘fitting in’ play a significant part. However, it finds that these barriers are seen less as impediment and more as cost to be weighed against the potential benefits of participation. Higher debt, less social alienation and similar factors can be accepted if the course has a strong chance of leading to a desired valued outcome (high wage or preferred job). This research suggests that students who come from a range of backgrounds, not only those deemed non-standard or disadvantaged, are very aware of the role that an HE qualification will play in their job search and have modest expectations of its value and their future work opportunities. Students’ stories appear to undermine the concept that a qualification from a good university is equally valuable to all students and emphasise the instrumental nature of many students’ participation in HE. In this light, the choice to study at lower status institutions is more rational than it might at first seem. Ultimately, what emerged was a suggestion that the students were strategic in their decision-making and had instrumental valuations of the role that HE plays in their lives. This suggests that as well as focusing on diminishing the barriers to participation there is a need to consider whether a monolithic HE sector with at best ‘fuzzy’ (Tight, 2002) diversification can offer an appropriate range of pathways to reflect the diverse needs of the students.

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