The Differences Between HE and FE

The differences between HE and FE
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    How the differing needs of Higher Education and Further Education providers impact apprenticeship success.


    Hello readers, and welcome to the ACE360 blog. In this instalment of our Quarterly Insights series, I will shine a spotlight on the needs of Higher Education Institutions when it comes to managing apprenticeships.

    The Further Education sector provides training after secondary school and is more commonly associated with the development of vocational skills and apprenticeships. The Higher Education sector provides university education but also offers apprenticeships alongside traditional honours degrees.

    I’ll define the differences between HE and FE (Higher Education and Further Education) in more detail next. Then I’ll explore how Further Education requirements have dominated the development of the regulatory framework to the detriment of Higher Education.

    ACE360 is committed to supporting Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and helping support the unique role that they play within the sector. We enjoyed discussing their issues at the Westminster Employment Forum in September 2022 and look forward to talking to more HEIs at the next UVAC conference.

    What’s the difference between Higher and Further Education?

    Before we get into the issues facing HEIs, let’s define what Higher Education is, what Further Education is, and how their apprenticeship training offering differs.

    What Is FE (Further Education)?

    According to source:

    ‘The FE sector is a large, wide-ranging and significant pillar of the education sector offering a range of education and training opportunities, including technical, academic and recreational courses.’

    Further Education colleges are popular with learners who prefer practical training upon leaving secondary school, as opposed to an academic route such as a university course. That’s why FE colleges tend to be more commonly associated with apprenticeships.

    Sixth-form colleges based in secondary schools are also under the FE banner, providing a purely academic route to qualification.

    Further Education and apprenticeships

    Further Education colleges and training providers offer a wide range of apprenticeship training programmes. A Further Education college often collaborates with employers to design and deliver apprenticeships that align with industry needs and provide practical skills and qualifications.

    • Sectors: Apprenticeships provided by Further Education providers cover various sectors, including healthcare, IT, construction and engineering.
    • Qualification level: FE apprenticeships are typically at levels 2 to 5 on the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF).
    • Career integration: Generally, FE is designed to equip individuals with the skills needed for entry-level or mid-level positions.
    • Access: FE courses are generally open to individuals who have completed compulsory secondary education (up to age 16) and meet specific entry requirements for the chosen apprenticeship. They are suitable for school leavers and individuals looking to start or progress in their careers.
    • Duration: Typically between 1 to 4 years, depending on the level and complexity of the apprenticeship.

    What Is HE (Higher Education)?

    According to source:

    ‘Higher education is tertiary education leading to award of an academic degree. Higher education, also called post-secondary education, third-level or tertiary education, is an optional final stage of final learning that occurs after completion of secondary education.’

    Not often associated with apprenticeships, the HE sector has recently welcomed apprenticeship-based models to a sector not usually associated with ‘hands-on learning’.

    Higher Education apprenticeships

    In recent years, the UK government has encouraged a broader range of education providers to offer apprenticeships to diversify the options available to learners and meet the demand for skilled workers in various industries.

    Many universities and Higher Education Institutions now offer apprenticeship programs in addition to traditional undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

    • Sectors: Higher education apprenticeships often focus on professional and technical roles, allowing students to gain a degree while also acquiring practical, work-based experience in their chosen field.
    • Qualification level: HE apprenticeships are typically at levels 4 to 7 on the RQF and are awarded as higher and degree apprenticeships, such as a bachelor’s degree.
    • Career integration: HE courses are designed to achieve a higher level of knowledge, critical thinking, and problem-solving and often lead to professional or managerial roles.
    • Access: Candidates usually require a higher level of prior education, such as A-levels or equivalent qualifications, as well as meeting specific criteria set by the employer and the university.
    • Duration: HE apprenticeships tend to be longer in duration than FE courses, often spanning 3 to 6 years, particularly for degree apprenticeships that incorporate undergraduate and postgraduate study.

    What are the challenges faced by Higher Education Institutions (HEIs)?

    Both FE and HE apprenticeship programmes aim to provide a structured pathway for learners to gain valuable skills and qualifications while working. But, as we can see from the above definitions, the offerings, and therefore the needs, of these institutions are very different.

    To put it plainly, the FE sector has established a framework in which they can ensure apprentice success, and HEIs have had no option but to follow, despite their differences.

    In 2022, I spent eight months working alongside universities to understand their frustrations firsthand. What I found is that they are all ‘in the same boat’, experiencing the same pain points.

    An independently published report by OfS highlighted how HEIs have ‘limited’ evidence showing their quality process when managing degree apprenticeships. FE providers have a strong infrastructure in place to receive support from the likes of Ofqual, ESFA and ifATE. But who do HEIs turn to? It’s not uncommon for HE providers to bring in Ofsted and ESFA specialists, who were not established to fulfil their needs.

    Evidence of FE domination is seen in the Further Education terms trickling through to the HE world. The report even goes on to ask, “How FE do we want to become?”. Shouldn’t the question be, ” Is it right that HEIs are treated like FE providers?”

    HEIs are crying out for a qualified model and specialist body who understand their needs. The move toward integrated degrees provides an even bigger demand for the industry to become more coherent.

    What is the solution?

    The reality is there’s an underlying issue around the support and guidance that the HE world receives. Moving forward, there needs to be a fusion between the two sectors to ensure the vast array of needs – some closely aligned and some subtly different but very important nonetheless – are met. The HE world needs a strong infrastructure to be developed to ensure it’s sustainable.

    The likes of UVAC’s annual conference, which has created a space for HEIs to drive change unitedly, provide hope that things can change. Perhaps we are finally moving to a world where FE and HE work in harmony, complementing each other but with an understanding of their broad differences.

    At ACE360, we think that the HE sector deserves it.

    How ACE360 is supporting Higher Education Institutions

    ACE360 is a revolutionary end-point assessment platform designed to help HEIs deliver and assess apprenticeships more efficiently, effectively, and cost-effectively. Our collaboration with HEIs has allowed us to address their specific concerns around assessment, progress tracking, reporting, and communication. 

    To create an ACE360 account, please get in touch. Also, seek us out at the 2023 UVAC Conference in Birmingham on the 30th of November, 2023. We look forward to talking to you about how ACE360 can further meet your needs as a HEI apprenticeship provider.

    This post was written by Keith Truslove

    Keith Truslove
    Keith is the Business Development Manager at Federation for Industry Sector Skills and Standards (FISSS).

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