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From FE to HE: Studies in Transition: A comparison of students entering higher education with academic and vocational qualifications

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Although higher education (HE) expanded its intake in the 1990s, the majority of entrants continued to be drawn from traditional client groups - that is school leavers, aged between 18 and 20 with two or more Advanced (A) levels and from white, middle class backgrounds. These students have followed an academic programme of study and have developed skills for writing essays and unseen examinations, the traditional methods of assessment in the British higher education institutions (HEIs). If the Government's target of 50 per cent participation in HE by 2010 is to be achieved, then HEIs will need recruit students from different educational and social backgrounds. These students will have alternative qualifications, such as Access certificates, Higher National Diplomas (HNDs), Higher National Certificates (HNCs) or General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs). Many of these entrants will have progressed to HE from a college of further education (FE) or from the workplace and, for those entering with vocationally-orientated qualifications, their assessment will have centred around tasks with a practical focus. The skills, expectations and experience that these ‘new’ students bring into HE will differ from those of the traditional A level entrants.

Using a study of students on a large undergraduate modular programme, this article explores whether entrants with alternative qualifications achieved the same standards as the ‘traditional’ A level students. While the Access and franchise students achieved degree classifications which were as good as or better than the A level entrants, the entrants from vocational routes performed less well. Their previous educational experiences had focused on developing a set of skills that did not prepare them for the assessment regime they encountered on an academic programme of study and their results were depressed as they took time to learn ‘the rules of the game’. Although the numbers of students in this study making the transition from vocational to academic were small, the findings point to the need for further research to underpin the future expansion of HE. If the 50 per cent target is to be achieved, an increasing proportion of students will progress to HE through a vocational route and will enter an Honours programme at an advanced stage in their studies. This raises issues about the ways in which these students' prior educational experiences can be recognised and respected within a higher education system that has long relied on admitting a homogenous body of students.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: August 1, 2003

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