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HE in FE; Inclusive, skills-based, high quality education

29 Mar 2018 | Catherine Howett Catherine Howett, Assistant Principal at Kingston College.

This blog was originally posted on the former Higher Education Academy website.

Catherine Howett is an Assistant Principal at Kingston College, London; she is also a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Here she talks about her journey to Fellowship and how she hopes it will inspire others who work in HE in FE to follow in her footsteps; as well as raising the profile of the unique challenges and opportunities faced by those working in similar contexts.

My career in education has spanned over 16 years; I have worked in both HE and FE institutions and have seen the education sector face some of its toughest challenges.  Currently I work in an FE institution which, in terms of HE student numbers, is amongst the top 20 FE colleges in the country. Initially I wasn’t sure what the HEA fellowship had to do with me or ‘us’.

HE in FE is usually seen as the poor relation to HE in University, if it is seen at all, which it usually isn’t.  The options available to learners for higher level education and training outside of traditional University routes are virtually invisible in the progression narratives espoused in schools and/or the media.  This is of clear disappointment to those of us who are very proud of the high quality, inclusive, higher education opportunities colleges’ offer. From my perspective colleges are critical enablers of participation in HE, offering learners affordable, viable alternatives to higher level training and education.  What has been most gratifying to me in my career, and has made me most proud, is that the initiatives I championed have emboldened and enabled cohorts of students who felt that HE was ‘not really for them’ to achieved level 4, 5 and 6 qualifications but, more importantly, grow in confidence in their own practical and academic abilities.

For the past five year I’ve had the role of cross college lead for Teaching, Learning and Assessment, my focus is on ensuring that teaching excellence is being delivered in all our teaching environments, this encompasses the HE, as well as FE, student experience. Contextually it is significant to note that as a provider of HE in an FE environment the majority (84%) of our HE lecturing staff also teach on our Level 1-3 study programmes. Therefore whilst it is important that I foster an awareness of difference it is also important that I actively seek out the commonality that exists. The core concerns of our students are similar regardless of education level; they all want effective / appropriate academic challenge, to be motivated to succeed, to be stretched to develop independence, knowledge, and skills; to achieve a qualification that will help them in their careers, to get detailed, timely and developmental feedback etc. all of these qualities are core expectations of both TEF and Ofsted.

A year ago a chance conversation with an HEA representative highlighted to me that the fellowship process had these values at the heart of its mission as well. As a college, driving excellence in our teaching, learning and assessment is already at the heart of what we do and permeates our HE teaching as a matter of course.  It was at this point I realised that perhaps there was a place for our voice here after all; a synergy of purpose and values.

As a College leader I have a responsibility to develop a culture of pride, purpose, and inclusion in our teaching teams. Nowhere is this more necessary than for our colleagues who work across sectors, as it were. The past few years have been a journey in developing professional pride and a robust HE culture in the college. The HEA fellowship is a way for colleagues to explore their impact in a positive way, focusing on an area where we excel; teaching and learning. I felt it was important to lead by example and do what I could to engage others in the fellowship process. Initially I decided to apply for senior fellow status but advice from an HEA representative gave me the confidence (and challenge) to consider an application for Principal Fellow. Perhaps I hadn’t thought to initially as I was still somehow, internally subject to our sector Cinderella complex, so I am very grateful to the representative for that advice.

The major challenge for me, in the actual application, was to try and find a balance between the FE and the HE work I do; it felt that the application was requiring more of a divide than I was initially prepared to make. However the process made me realise that it is these very divides, the points of tension, the gaps, the common ground, the negotiated spaces, identities and cultures that we work with every day and which give us the unique opportunity to provide something different, more accessible, more consciously provided for our learners than other environments who don’t have these same territories to navigate. Many drafts later, with support from the HEA, I submitted my application. I very much hope that my Principal Fellow status emboldens my sector peers who are working to grow and develop high quality higher education in an FE context, to engage with the Fellowship process with the pride and confidence that our sector deserves.

Find out more about Fellowship.

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