Successful HE in FE recruitment – what can research tell us?

Our work includes research and consultancy projects that help further education colleges boost their recruitment to higher education courses.

In the past three years we have worked with a range of clients on HE in FE research projects and below we set out five conclusions that are common across all of the studies and which resonate with the wider literature.

  1. Focus on internal progression – but only where progress is possible

It is a well-known maxim that marketing to an unfamiliar group or audience requires around ten times as much effort to achieve the same results as when marketing to a group that is familiar. Which is one reason why colleges are wise to focus their HE recruitment efforts towards their current Level 3 cohort. (Another being the large number of Level 3 students served by most colleges that also deliver higher education). However, communicating HE opportunities to students for whom there is no natural progression route from Level 3 to Level 4 is typically a waste of time and energy. This is a truism, but colleges still commonly fail to differentiate or focus their efforts. Worse still, there are institutions where Level 3 tutors actively criticise the quality of the Level 4 provision and enthusiastically recommend alternatives to their students even where internal progression pathways exist. No marketing activity will resolve the quality issues at play here.

  1. Course is the dominant factor in institution selection

As the excellent research underpinning the Government’s 2012 ‘higher education in further education’ paper demonstrates, students who study a higher education course in a college setting are primarily motivated to do so by considerations of career[1]. Their choice of course is determined, most commonly, by a mix of personal interest in the subject matter and judgments about how helpful this particular course will be in furthering that career. (The mix differs according to age and mode of study). In our research and the literature, choice of institution is dominated by course, followed by location. Which is why marketing to internal or external students for whom no progression pathway exists is so pointless.

No matter how much someone likes a college, they won’t spend two or three years studying there if they do not think the course is right for them.

It is also why researching the higher education ambitions of a Level 3 cohort is such a valuable exercise, as it can provide immediate, robust evidence as to how a college might enhance its HE curriculum and who constitutes the internal market.

  1. Taking into account the different types of HE in FE students – gender and mode of study

There exist significant differences within the HE in FE cohort. Those taking Foundation degrees are most likely to be female, aged under 20 and studying full-time. Conversely HNC/HND students are most likely to be male, to be studying part-time while in full-time employment. Course preferences differ by gender. Students sponsored by their employer are typically differently motivated and face different barriers to those whose course is funded by a loan. The mix of student types differs by institution.

According to our own studies, what students want and expect from a college higher education course, and how their view is formed before they arrive, differs according to gender and the type of course on which they are enrolling. For instance, female applicants typically take more factors into account, making a more ‘considered’ assessment when choosing HE institutions, than males. In some cases, attitudes differ according to where students lived when they applied to study.

  1. Barriers vs motivating factors

In our studies and in the BIS research, over two-thirds of HE in FE students do not apply anywhere else apart from to the college where they are studying. Where choices are constrained, they are largely limited by students’ unwillingness or inability to study away from home because of the living and travel costs (rather than the tuition fees) or because of work and domestic commitments. In other words, there are typically two key factors driving choice for this group, one of them positive and the other negative:

‘This is the right course for me and I cannot afford to study it away from home’.

Older students, married students, white students, students with low entry-level qualifications, are less likely to have made other applications, generally because they are less likely to have also applied to universities.  Those most likely to also apply to universities are aged under 20, single, white, and come from families where at least one parent has had some experience of higher education. For these students, what attracts them to a college over a university is most commonly the smaller college class size.[2]

In order for their HE in FE campaigns to succeed, colleges need to understand the composition of their cohort and their target market, shaping their campaigns around their particular motivators, influencers, barriers and preferred channels.

  1. Validation matters

Our research, and the literature, shows that a significant proportion of HE in FE students value the ‘university’ brand associated with their Foundation or Bachelor’s degree.

Indeed the BIS research suggests, rather alarmingly, that 10% of HE in FE students actually think are studying at a university.

This phenomenon has ramifications for colleges looking to gain foundation or teaching degree awarding powers and for the development of a central validation service. It is also, presumably, the reason why colleges seek validation agreements with universities, even though the latter have a habit of pulling out of those agreements at short notice, to the considerable inconvenience of the former.

[1] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, ‘Understanding higher education in further education colleges, BIS Research Paper Number 69’, 2012, Chapter 5.

[2] ibid, p.135.


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