Colley, Helen (2011) Collaboration and Contestation in Further and Higher Education Partnerships around New Vocational Pathways: the Influence of Sector-Specific Cultures. In: ECER 2011 Urban Education, 12-16th September 2011, Freie Universit Berlin, Germany. (Unpublished)

Across Europe, lifelong learning policies have developed in support of the Lisbon strategy to create ‘sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion’ (European Parliament 2000: 11) and produce ‘a dynamic economy to fuel our wider social and environmental ambitions’ (European Commission, 2005: 5). They have therefore been directed towards increasing skill levels, and accrediting non-formal learning in the workplace. In particular, they have attempted to link vocational learning more closely to employers’ needs. One of the ways in which this has been pursued in UK policies on vocational education and training has been by developing new vocational pathways into higher education (HE), often through part-time programmes for those already in craft, technical or associate professional levels of employment. A key feature of most such programmes is that they are delivered not by universities directly, but in further education (FE) colleges in partnership with higher education institutions (HEIs). They are therefore referred to generally as ‘HE in FE’, which has now become commonplace in the UK.

Given that HEIs enjoy higher status than FE colleges in the broad field of education, and that both are based on very different traditions, such partnerships inevitably entail the interaction of different sector-specific cultures, and this is the focus of this paper. Far from the mutual and equitable partnerships suggested by Trim (2001), FE-HE relations continue to appear hierarchical, and student progression in particular has been shown to remain problematic (Parry et al, 2008). But how, at the micro-level of practice, do such partnerships evolve? How do they invoke and mediate sectoral and institutional cultures as they develop? What contestation takes place between different sectoral cultures, and to what extent are they reconciled or reinforced in the process? And what impact do these have on the learners’ experiences?

The theoretical framework deployed is a Bourdieusian one (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999). The notions of field (education) and sub-fields (HE and FE) are helpful in understanding the respective positionings and competition for advantage of different types of institution. ‘Institutional habitus’ (Reay et al, 2001) allows a further refinement of understanding in relation to different cultures in each sector, and their interaction through collaboration and contestation. The notion of habitus is also applied to understand the positioning (in both active and passive senses) of tutors from different institutions and students from different social backgrounds.


The paper draws on data from an evaluation of a HE-funded partnership piloting a range of new vocational pathways into HE, delivered mainly in FE colleges with some university-based provision. The project used a qualitative, interpretive methodology to develop case studies of three distinct types of provision within the partnership studied, all within the field of health and social care. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with managers, tutors and learners in all three types of programme, along with observations of some key events promoting the piloted provision to prospective students and to employers. Initially, the data were analysed thematically, around issues such as curriculum development, quality assurance, student recruitment and support, and outcomes. The researchers then also conducted more detailed narrative analysis (Colley, 2010) of the students’ accounts in order to foreground learner voices and locate them in the broader socio-economic context of their lives.

Expected Outcomes

The findings highlight the unevenness of partnership working in two different phases of the pilot programmes. We see a process of reconciling initially divergent cultural understandings around matters such as curriculum design, assessment and quality assurance. Despite the asymmetries of power involved, and initial contestation, the evidence suggests that FE colleges and their staff gained significantly in status and capacity through HE-FE collaboration. But some areas of cultural conflict appeared less susceptible to reconciliation. These emerged strongly around issues of student recruitment, support and progression into HE, particularly in programmes requiring students to progress from FE to university part-way through them. This appeared to produce a subordinate positioning of FE colleges and staff, and of the most disadvantaged students in the pilot. The data also reveal subtle processes of ‘triage’ filtering students from different class backgrounds into each of the three particular pathways; and obstacles of institutional culture that confronted socially disadvantaged students as they tried to access HE beyond HE-in-FE. The paper therefore provides findings that may well inform the development of vocational pathways into HE across Europe, not only the UK, through its exploration of the current strengths and weaknesses of the HE in FE model.

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