At times, working in College Based Higher Education can feel like an uphill struggle. Trying to maintain academic credibility and a professional perspective can be difficult in the often schizophrenic nature of CBHE, where many smaller-scale HE providers rely on a minimal number of teaching staff to cover both FE and HE delivery. The pressure is on to give learners the best Higher Education experience they deserve and for those tutors with majority HE teaching, the very last thing they need is further tension in the form of a potential ‘us versus them’ mentality from FE colleagues or college management. It’s certainly not a widespread phenomenon, but when it occurs it can be an unwelcome distraction and only add to the pressures on a lecturer.
Many FE tutors and managers have worked exclusively within the sector and, quite rightly, are protective of what they view as the core business of a Further Education college. Introducing HE programmes generates considerable developmental work, often outside the experience of management and tutors alike, regardless of how meticulously planned the strategy of implementation might be. There are, therefore, practical and financial reasons that some managers - and teaching staff - feel there is no place for Higher Education within their FE college. Additionally, in some cases, the belief can develop that HE within FE fosters feelings of elitism. When this happens, it can be destructive to staff and students alike.
Anyone working across FE and HE will know that elitism does not come into it. Balancing FE and HE preparation, teaching and assessment is hard work, but most tutors will admit cross-level delivery has many advantages; learners get to build close relationships with the staff during their FE studies, often playing a major factor in them continuing to Higher Education. Innovations within FE delivery can be successfully transposed to HE, and HE developments in research and scholarly activity might find a place in Level 3 studies. It means the cross-level tutor has to academically raise and lower their game on a daily - sometimes hourly - basis, and managing the shift between levels can be very difficult. Nevertheless, they still see the merits of these two distinct approaches to education - distinct, not inferior or superior - despite the effort involved.
For those colleges whose provision includes HE-only or HE-majority delivery staff, active proponents of an elitist attitude can lead to an environment of negativity and distrust. It is, therefore, down to management to ensure such a situation is avoided and, where it might be perceived to have occurred, do their best to defuse it. If not tackled promptly, it can lead to staff abandoning HE delivery, moving to another institution or giving up on education completely - hardly in the interests of the learners or the college in which they work. The fact remains that the good majority of staff delivering HE either teach both FE and HE or have experience of FE leading up to their Higher Education transition. Consequently, they fully understand and appreciate the value of Further Education and what the primary function of an FE college is.
Equally so, CBHE can offer students from socially disadvantaged areas a unique learning environment and the opportunity for non-traditional learners to re-train or return to studies. They do not see their work developing and promoting Higher Education as elitist, but aspirational. Any differentiated teaching areas, facilities and faculties can be an inspiration to current and future FE students who recognise they have the potential to continue their academic and professional development in an environment that is accessible and familiar to them, rather than be faced with the financial implications of travelling away from home. This is, thankfully, the majority view held across CBHE, and one that should be maintained and nurtured. To help support and promote this, management should ensure all levels of delivery are seen for their positives and work in conjunction with, not against, each other. Given the enormous daily pressures on all teaching staff, the elitism versus aspiration argument is not one tutors teaching at any level - or managers - have the time for.