The Gap Between Widening Participation and Social Mobility: The Case of Higher Education Provision in English Further Education Colleges

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


Politicians all over the world are infatuated with education policy as a plausible instrument for social and economic development (Wolf, 2004, p. 321), both of which are apparent in justifications for opening up access to higher education (HE) for under-represented groups. In the UK the previous New Labour government set a target of fifty per cent participation in HE for people under thirty. Similarly Ireland, Sweden, Australia and Germany, amongst other nations, set targets for increased participation in HE and the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has also explicitly supported this expansion (Gale, 2012, p. 240; Wolf, 2010, p.316). In America these policies have been associated with meritocratic ideals of individual talent being the determinant of social distinction (Liu, 2011) and likewise policymakers in the UK have typically linked widening participation (WP) in HE to improving opportunities for social mobility (see for example Cabinet Office, 2011, p. 48). This paper focuses on England and specifically on how social mobility is associated with WP through the provision of HE in English further education (FE) colleges (henceforth referred to as HE in FE). English FE colleges bear similarities to Community Colleges in America and to Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutions in Australia. They sit somewhere between schools and universities, though their provision overlaps those boundaries, and they offer mainly vocational courses. Like American Community Colleges and Australian TAFE colleges, English FE colleges have lower status than universities in what has become a highly differentiated HE system. HE in FE students are more likely to be part-time, mature and from lower socio-economic groups than those in universities (Parry et al., 2012). Also like their international counterparts, English FE colleges have been providing a range of HE courses for decades and they have been identified as means to increase access to HE from lower socio-economic groups. One major British thinktank, Policy Exchange, described HE in FE as having the potential to be an “engine for widening participation and social mobility” (Hartley & Groves, 2011, p. 5). Despite government’s enthusiasm for HE in FE (see for example Dearing, 2007) the proportion of HE students attending FE colleges in England has, however, remained stable at or just below ten per cent for , even as the overall numbers in HE have expanded rapidly.
Period3 Jul 2015
Event title11th Journal of Vocational Education and Training International Conference
Event typeConference
Conference number11
LocationOxford, United Kingdom
Degree of RecognitionNational