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22 April 2022

College-based higher education - a unique place for students


Leon Annett

Dean of Higher Education, Cardiff and Vale College

Jane Nickisson

Head of Higher Education, Salford City College

Leon Annett, Dean of Higher Education, Cardiff and Vale College and Jane Nickisson, Head of Higher Education, Salford City College discuss the challenges involved in the transition from further education to higher education within a college-based setting. 

The core purpose of college-based higher education has always centred on widening participation, enabling a community feel, and offering vocationally-relevant curricula that embed work-based learning opportunities throughout its courses. It is about providing a local and flexible alternative for many of our students within a safe and familiar environment. College-based higher education is unique with its own distinctive characteristics, opportunities and challenges. At the heart, we aim to encourage and empower students to make the step between further education and higher education level study. In doing so, colleges work very hard to build the confidence of their learners - many of whom could be the first in their family to consider higher-level study or adult learners whom we empower to make this step to progress or change their careers.


'I studied level 3 Health and Social Care at Cardiff and Vale College. I found it fundamental in my ability to progress being able to stay at the college, as I think I would have found the transition to the university overwhelming and intimidating. After I complete the Foundation Degree, I now feel I will be confident enough and ready to progress.'

Alexandra, Foundation Degree Psychology student at Cardiff and Vale College


Internal transition to HE for college students


One challenge that college-based HE providers face is making the transition to higher education appealing to those students continuing their education whilst staying in the same surroundings. It is critical to their journey that our approach towards these students differs from further education, to reassure them that they have progressed to a higher level of study. It is about fostering independence - creating a sense of identity that recognises that HE students are different and supports them in making that transition.


Role of college-based HE staff


Staff play a crucial role in enabling students to make this leap. College-based HE staff are outstanding academics - often delivering 25 hours of teaching a week, ranging from entry-level programmes through to Level 6 undergraduate programmes. The ability to adapt their teaching style to the level at which they are teaching is a difficult skill to master but is held in abundance by those in the college HE community. Most teaching staff are not just focused on higher-level education, although it can vary from college to college - most of them tend to be around a 50% split. Despite how challenging it can be to balance, they are typically close to their students' journey and provide holistic support that extends beyond the classroom. Many teaching staff enter a college environment with extensive industry knowledge but are often new to higher education - and it is essential that colleges support them in understanding what it means to deliver higher education to those students.


What colleges can do to embrace HE ethos


Approaches to managing HE vary across colleges. QAA’s Higher Education toolkit provides a helpful blueprint and an excellent starter to think about building HE ethos whilst touching on other considerations pivotal to the college-based HE student journey. In a recent QAA Membership podcast, we shared ideas of what we do to support student transition and help staff support their students. We also touched on challenges in supporting students who are required to be on campus for a small amount of time and have a wide range of responsibilities outside their studies.


It is important to build a network of critical friends across the sector, and QAA Membership supports us to do that. QAA’s College HE Policy and Practice Network is a great place to focus on college-based HE, where we connect with like-minded colleagues across regions. We would encourage colleagues to join the next network meeting on 19 May, which will focus on exploring ideas around the ways of engaging students in academic support to aid their academic success and progression.


It is also important to work closely with our university partners and collaborate across the sector as we all share the common purpose of enhancing the student academic experience. QAA Membership provides a variety of resources and opportunities for the whole HE sector steering us with important points for reflection whilst also encouraging members to share practice and connect with each other. For example, there are many ideas that can be picked up from QAA Collaborative Enhancement Projects. We are keeping an eye on these and are really excited about them as they will benefit all our students.


QAA Membership events and resources mentioned in this blog are available to staff and students from all QAA Members who are listed on 'Our Members' page of the QAA website. First-time users can access the resources site by completing a short registration form. Information about the next College HE Policy and Practice Network meeting on 19 May 2022 can be found on our events page. To keep up-to-date with membership activities, sign up to receive our weekly Member Updates.


If your institution is not listed as a QAA Member, you can find out more about membership by emailing the team at