An exploration of the nature and meaning of transitions in the context of dual sector fe/he institutions in England

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Higher education provision in England is not just increasingly diverse, but increasingly differentiated and stratified. It is, in effect, unequal. Although it might not be stated so starkly, this picture of English higher education is acknowledged not only in literature concerned with inequalities in higher education (for example, Bhatti, 2003; Bowl, 2003; Reay, David and Ball, 2005; Naidoo, 2004), but also in literature which is broadly supportive of new and alternative forms of higher education (see for example, the collections edited by Duke (2005a) and Duke and Layer (2005)).

Our paper does not seek to reassert this argument. The focus of the paper is on a growing area of higher education provision, that offered by ‘dual’ sector (Garrod and Macfarlane, 2006) or ‘hybrid’ (Smith, Bathmaker and Parry, 2007) institutions. We are interested in how higher education in such contexts may be shaped, and also may work to shape understandings and experience of higher education in the 21st century. We do this through a focus on transitions, which we consider at three different, but interrelated levels: institutions in transition, transitions in institutions and students’ experience of transition1. Bourdieu’s work and his concepts of field, habitus and capital (Bourdieu, 1986; 1990; 1997), have informed our analysis, and we discuss how these concepts have shaped our thinking below.

First we give a brief overview of the FurtherHigher project, and the context for the study2. We then discuss the framework used to analyse the data, based on the three levels of transition identified above, and relate these to Bourdieu’s work. This framework is used to present data from one of the case study institutions in the study. We argue that the work that transition is doing involves processes of ‘positioning’, whereby the institution and individuals work at defining their place within higher education. Since such positioning both highlights and helps to create a differentiated and stratified system, which operates in the context of wider inequalities both within and beyond the education system, such work raises issues for social justice and equity. We conclude by pointing to the unsettling and complex issues this raises in relation to social justice and equity.

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