Since being made independent, higher education colleges have carved out an important niche by widening access, writes John Izbicki
This Thursday thousands of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will receive the results of their A-level exams and learn if they've won that coveted place at university or college or if they need to go into Clearing and look for another vacancy. Whatever the results, one thing is certain, there is now more choice and a great deal more variety of courses available than ever before.

The university system is matched by 60 colleges of higher education, many of which offer both excellent teaching and some unique courses. They're dedicated to widening access to higher education for people who wouldn't traditionally have considered it - and they often provide excellent work experience for their students.

The subject choice at colleges of higher education is vast, and courses tend to be more applied than theoretical. You'll find most of the subjects available at universities, but there are many that are not at older establishments. Colleges of HE do not offer medicine, dentistry or veterinary science, but you can find many allied subjects - such as nursing, social welfare, psychology and equine studies.

There are also subjects you might find difficult to locate elsewhere, such as the degree in computer animation that's just been launched at Swansea's Institute of Higher Education; or the world-renowned degree in animation at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design, which also offers fine courses in digital fashion imaging, film and video, photography and journalism.

There's human communication at the College of St Mark & St John (Marjohn) at Plymouth, accredited by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. Marjohn also has an excellent course in public relations. Dartington College of Arts has just introduced a new course on performance writing - and there are leatherwear courses at Northampton University College and all things agricultural at Harper Adams Agricultural College.

Colleges of HE have gone from strength to strength since they were freed from local education authority control by the 1988 Education Reform Act. They now are independent and self-governing, like universities. Many of them were established when Victoria was still a young queen and many were church foundations. Most provide full degrees as well as other excellent qualifications, such as the Higher National Diploma (HND). Those that do not provide their own degrees and diplomas have them validated by a nearby university.

Colleges of HE come in all sizes. Some are small enough for lecturers to know every student by name. Dartington College of Arts has just 487 students; the Ravensbourne College of Design and Communications has 740, while multi-discipline colleges include the Southampton Institute with more than 13,000 students and the London Institute with nearly 16,000.

Some colleges of HE have taken a brisk step towards university status and become university colleges. What used to be Nene College of HE until earlier this year, is now the University College of Northampton (11,000 plus students); and the Buckinghamshire College of HE has become the Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College (8,000 plus students).

Other than those colleges whose very name restricts course variety - Kent Institute of Art and Design (2,700 students) produces some of the best art work in the country - most HE colleges offer a vast range of subjects, from computer and business studies to engineering and the sciences. Several provide teacher training as their speciality. Indeed, one newly qualified teacher in four has been trained at an HE college - a good record when there's a growing teacher shortage. Ten per cent of HE college students qualify in business and administrative studies - a higher proportion than the 6 per cent qualifying from universities.

Other subjects on offer to students range from agriculture at the Harper Adams Agricultural College in the midst of beautiful Salop countryside, to fashion at Central St Martin's College of Art and Design, part of the giant London Institute.

Higher Education colleges also provide high levels of work experience, with around 28 per cent of students undertaking some form of it, against 17 per cent in new universities and 11 per cent in old.

Patricia Ambrose, executive secretary of the Standing Conference of Principals, representing most higher education colleges and university colleges, says they've made an increasingly important contribution to art, design and the performing arts whose graduates have gone on to support Britain's excellence in the creative industries.

What the students say

Michael Ford, 33, (above) left school at 16 with O-levels and CSEs. He has been a solicitor's clerk and a bookie, and is now in his second year of an organisational and management degree at Edge Hill College, Liverpool

"I lived through those grim recession years in Liverpool and felt that, if only I had the right qualifications, I'd make a better, more effective manager than I'd seen. Some treated their staff like animals.

"Someone mentioned the Fastrack scheme at Edge Hill College and I grabbed the chance. It prepares adults who don't have the usual formal qualifications for a place on a degree course. This is something I've always wanted to do, yet if you had asked me when I was 16 if I thought that I'd one day be studying for a degree, I'd have said 'no way'!

"This has been a fantastic opportunity. I knew I was taking a chance leaving a secure job, but I also realised it was a pretty safe bet. Lisa, my wife, has a degree and so have all my friends. You need these qualifications to get on in the world. I'm the first in my family to go into higher education.

"I did five weeks on the Fastrack course and it gave me the confidence to go on. When I graduate, I shall become the manager of a racecourse. And there's no 'if' about it."

Celestine Nash, (above right), 32, and a mother of two, from Powick, Worcester, graduated from University College Worcester

"I left school with one O-level in 1983 and have just gained a first- class honours degree in English and literary studies at University College Worcester. I'm sincerely grateful to all the college staff for providing me with the platform to fulfil my full potential.

"I left school as an under-achiever with very low self-esteem. My confidence grew as gradually I began to re-take my O-levels. I then studied for an A-level and achieved a professional qualification. When I started a family in 1992 I believed that my days of studying were over. This, I am happy to say, could not have been further from the truth.

"While I was employed at the college's creche as a nursery nurse, I was accepted for a full-time degree in 1996.

"As a mature student with two young children, I found the modular scheme and the flexibility of the lecturers, suited my busy timetable. My three years at college were made even happier thanks to the excellent facilities - especially the creche and library.

"I hope to continue my studies at UCW and I've just been offered a place on the PGCE (postgraduate certificate of education) course starting in September. My long-term academic plans will hopefully not end there, as I hope to begin a research degree in the next few years, thanks to the many research topics I have managed to identify during my years of study.

"The excellent opportunities the college has provided has allowed me to shrug off my former academic failure."

What the students say

Vanita Dhand, from Leicestershire, read for a BA in business at Northampton University College. Later she won the International Flight Catering Association's Mercury Award's gold medal for her firm, e-COPS Ltd

"The moment I drove through the gates of Nene College of Higher Education (now Northampton University College), together with my parents, I knew this was the place for me. My home's in a village. I've been used to university talk since I was 16. My sister graduated in London and took a post-doctorate degree in cancer research.

"The Nene campus was brilliant and the accommodation was far superior to anything else I had seen at the other universities I had visited. But it was the course that really attracted me. It was so varied and stretched right across the business band.

"I read for a BA in business studies and was among the first cohort to take the degree. We were the guinea pigs for that course and I can honestly say that those four years were the best and happiest years of my life. I spent my placement year as marketing officer for the Faculty of Management and Business. This is what really decided my future. I knew I wanted to go into creative marketing. That's where I got the creative buzz and where I gained confidence and a sense of achievement.

"The academic life was brilliant, but so was the social life. I was co- ordinator of the Passion and Lust Society - which was not quite what it sounds. We organised trips on the river and to different nightclubs in Nottingham and Birmingham, and also ran the graduation ball. It was the most popular of all the societies.

"After graduating, I took a break in Canada and landed a job as a marketing assistant in a pharmaceutical company. When I returned to the UK I took an MA in marketing management at Middlesex University. I then worked for a firm that sourced food and drink used by airlines to prepare in-flight meals. Together with my chairman, we produced a standard line system of hardware and software that goes out to airlines and is now expanding to other industries."