In this study we are particularly interested in whether students choose to stay and progress within the same institution, where this is possible, or whether they choose to move elsewhere for the next level of study. What we have found in East Heath College is that there is little internal progression from level 3 (FE) to level 4 (first year of HE). Instead of progressing internally, we have seen three patterns of progression: progression to other HEIs, progression to part-time, non-prescribed HE whilst working, and progression into work with no current or planned HE-level study.
Students on the ND Sports programme have, generally speaking, progressed to HE at another institution. Their primary motivation for doing so is that they cannot follow their chosen speciality at East Heath College (or at UCEH from 2007), which relates to their imagined future career. Other reasons cited include: wanting to move away or out of home, wanting a change, or feeling that the course might be delivered better elsewhere. For students on this course who progressed to work rather than HE study various reasons are given, but most refer to the perceived cost of studying in HE or feeling that beginning full-time work offers a better vocational pathway.
Students on the ND Business showed a greater tendency to prefer a part-time mode of study, with most selecting a vocational non-prescribed HE qualification route (AAT Accountancy qualification with many wanting to progress to CIMA or ACCA). These students are no less committed to their anticipated careers, but they are happy to select this non-university route as one which is just as appropriate for their expectations and aspirations. Ryan for example explained what he wanted to do the following year: ‘Hopefully get a job and ask them if they’ll do the AAT Intermediate, if not I’ll just pay for it.’ (CZ1005, interview 1, response 35)
Amy feels that the work-based route gives a more ‘rounded’ and vocationally relevant training:
I considered like university, but then I thought…to get what I want I can do it through work and still get the same qualifications, get some experience in the workplace, and still get money. If you go to university you don’t get none of the experience…and you end up with loads of debt!...I done a couple of weeks work experience here in the Finance department [at East Heath College]…if you go to university you know all this theory stuff, but you go into the workplace it’s completely different. (CZ1001, interview 1, responses 58 & 59)
Like Amy, other students who were interviewed showed an aversion to debt and felt they could not afford or justify the expense of university study. Ryan for example stated that he ‘probably would have considered it [university]’ (CZ1005, interview 1, response 58) if it were not for the financial barriers. Ben also commented on the prohibitive cost of university study, saying ‘I wouldn’t do university’ because ‘…obviously a big debt as well.’ (CZ1003, interview 1, responses 53 & 54)
For most students making the progression to HE there are three commonly experienced influences on their decision-making process: availability of information, the experience of making applications, and finances. The ability to get hold of and to process information and advice about making the correct choice at a transition point is clearly important to students and makes them very reliant on those who are in a position to help them with this processing function. When asked about who has been particularly influential in their decision-making process, many students cite tutors and contacts who have prior experience of HE or their chosen career, as well as their family. George was typical, getting advice from his personal tutor, course tutor and from a family friend working in his chosen vocational area. His family, although they provided support and encouragement and were described as “really clever” and as working “incredibly hard” in their schooling, had not studied at HE level before.
For students on the cusp of transition between FE and HE, the application process through UCAS stands out as a boundary object ensuring that they cannot help but see the process as significant. The process also helps reinforce the reliance on experienced practitioners who are able to advise students on the application process and on how to write personal statements. The comments of one student, Craig, about UCAS reinforced the importance that is placed on the application process because it is addressed in class in special sessions:
…instead of having a tutorial for a month, we had like a sort of UCAS workshop type session where if you were having problems with your forms, or with filling out the online thing you could go there and do. The tutor would sit down with you and say you need to be doing this or help you out with your personal statement as well… (CX3006, interview 1, response 39)
Most significant is the impact of finance on student perceptions of HE. Top-up fees play a key role in this, with many students in interviews commenting that they had trouble finding information and understanding how these fees might impact on them. Craig had to seek out information: “I’ve just had to find that out myself and sort of ring up the LEA and find out what I’m entitled to and what I’m not entitled to” (CX3006, interview 1, response 45). Financial considerations also impact on student decision-making in other ways: whether it might be cheaper to study nearby, whether there is a need to work part-time, and whether an HE course at university represents best value for money. The ND Business students in particular have indicated that this is a major factor in their decision-making.