Degrees of comfort: Where to find smaller classes and caring lecturers

Some students prefer to take university-level courses at further education colleges, where they get smaller classes, a more hands-on approach and help with employment when they graduate.

Vicky Payne, 21, quit university after one year. It wasn't that she had struggled academically or made no friends. She just felt held back – something that completely changed when she started the same degree in hospitality management at Westminster Kingsway College.

"All the students here are passionate about learning, whereas at university their focus seemed to be the social scene," she says. "Also, all the staff here are supportive and have worked in the industry.

"At university, most of the lecturers hadn't, and I felt like I was paying all this money to people who didn't really understand the sector. They didn't even know my name because I was one of 200, and I didn't even really feel they cared whether I passed or failed. I want to open my own restaurant one day, and yet I felt that dream was slipping away."

Such tales are not unusual, according to Payne's curriculum team leader, Clare Mannall. It's not that university courses are poor quality, she says – rather, that for many students, the college environment simply suits them better.

"With the proportion of higher education taking place in colleges having reached 10 per cent – and with 286 of the 380 colleges now offering some form of higher education – the good news is that such students are increasingly catered for.

"Many students who come to us are at the weaker end in terms of confidence and even qualifications, and so it's not surprising they don't opt for university.

"Others are from overseas or are mature students and they also tend to prefer the idea of a smaller institution with smaller class sizes, where they can get to know each other better and where we can build up a personal and supportive relationship with them."

Philip Cowan, tutor on the journalism degree at Harlow College, finds students favour small class sizes. "Having no more than 20 in a class means we get to know what motivates students, and conversely what demotivates them, and it also means we can run an open-door policy," he says. "I think it's also fair to say that students benefit from the fact that we're not pure academics, but practitioners in our field."

For many students, studying a higher-education course at college means they can stay at home. "A large proportion of our higher education students haven't achieved that highly in school, and their parents often didn't go to university," says Chris Moorcroft, chair of the Association of Colleges' higher education group. "They feel safe and secure staying at home and going to the college just down the road.

"Not only are college fees sometimes cheaper than universities', but staying at home usually means less debt," says Moorcroft, who is the principal of Worcester College, where nearly 1,000 students are currently studying higher education courses.

At York College, Ed Poxon, deputy head of art and design, claims the BA in art and design is half the cost of many universities' equivalent courses. "For that price, they not only get a higher ratio of student-to-staff support, but access to cutting-edge equipment. Last year, for example, we had a £75,000 Apple [computer] room built.

"Colleges are often able to help students find jobs or even set up their own businesses at the end of a course. That's very different from some universities, where students are pushed out of the door and told: 'Good luck'."

Rob Whitton, head of the School of Leadership and Management at City of Sunderland College, says students benefit from colleges' links with employers. "These links mean colleges can offer great work experience during the course," he says.

"Colleges also excel in study support – for example, in academic writing and giving presentations. And where courses are linked up with universities, students have the benefit of both sets of facilities and lecturers."

Then there's the flexibility. At Sheffield College, many higher education courses are run between 9am and4pm, with the added benefit of an on-site creche, so that parents find it easier to study.

At Gateshead College, most higher education courses can be studied part-time – something that suited Paul Brown perfectly. Already in employment, he took a foundation degree in operations management on day release. "I didn't believe a course could be very applicable to a job, but I was learning skills that I was applying the very next day," he says.

Although still relatively rare, a growing number of colleges are offering postgraduate qualifications. At Doncaster, there are 18 postgraduate programmes ranging from diplomas and certificates to MAs.

"Rather like with undergraduate programmes, the idea is not for colleges to compete with universities, but to offer something vocational, says vice-principal (higher education), Mark Mabey. "So with MAs, for instance, the courses are very applied. We're not talking about an MA in English, but in subjects such as digital performance."

Meanwhile, at Nescot College in Epsom, Surrey, postgraduate courses include Masters degrees in perfusion, a profession within the NHS, acoustics and osteopathy.

'The family-like atmosphere was enticing'

Verity Taylor, 20, is studying for a foundation degree in equine studies at Reaseheath College in Cheshire. She intends to top this up to a BSc.

"I have been a keen horse rider since I was four, so this qualification was an obvious choice. I am interested in equine breeding, which is why I was attracted to a course where you get to study everything from equine anatomy to nutrition and exercise physiology.

While there are equine studies degrees at university, which my four A-levels would have enabled me to get on to, I found the family-like atmosphere of a college more enticing. And it's not as if I miss out on the social scene, because I live on campus.

One of the best things has been the work-based learning. It was during my time in industry that I found a new interest, and niche [area] of research – heavy horses. I find them so majestic. I'm hoping to follow a career helping to preserve rare breeds such as the Shire and Clydesdale.

There has been a lot of opportunity to be hands-on with the horses. Students can even bring their own horses to college.

The degree has been great for my academic and professional development. I've learnt to reference and produce an assignment backed up with a PowerPoint presentation, and I now feel prepared for job interviews."

'No other institution's equipment comes close'

Mike Screenan, 22, has just completed a BSc in music technology at Middlesbrough College.

"Having got average GCSE results, I had no idea what to do next. I knew I liked music, so I did a music performance course at Middlesbrough College. I found myself drawn to the technical side, so I progressed to a BTEC national diploma in music technology, and it was then I realised recording music was my thing. So I applied to do the BSc.

The course is run in a new £68m music and performance facility. No other institution's equipment comes close. I like the progressive teaching style, too – they use a virtual learning environment so we can access course materials and sound files, and interact with students and staff, any time, anywhere.

At first, I wondered if I might miss out, not doing a degree at university. How would it look on my CV? But the University of Teesside is heavily involved in the course, and my social life here has been great.

There are only 15 people in my class, which means the tutors – all of whom only teach higher education courses – can focus on everyone. When music industry professionals come in to give lectures, we get to ask loads of questions.

I'm setting up my own small studio and have done a few demos for bands. Making a living from freelancing is my dream."

'I nearly withdrew, but I wound up winning Student of the Year'

Annette Maspero, 42, is studying for her Association of Accounting Technicians NVQ level 4 in accounting at Swindon College.

"As a single mum of two working full-time, it was a big commitment to return to study, and quite daunting knowing I'd be the oldest in my class. But there are other older students who I've made good friends with. One of the good things about the course is they encourage you to make friends with one particular person in the class – someone you can phone up to get your homework for you if you miss a class. It's a very supportive and friendly environment, helped by the small class size.

I left school at 17, having done O-levels, largely because my parents encouraged me to work. I had a career in banking and then as a legal cashier. But when I moved to Swindon, I realised I couldn't progress any further in my industry without professional qualifications. It also felt like it was the right time, because my children were old enough to help themselves to tea. That's important, because the course is two evenings a week, plus two or three hours' homework.

The studying has been tough. About eight months ago, I nearly withdrew, but the staff were right behind me and I wound up winning 'Student of the Year'. That's been such a boost.

My qualification, which is degree-standard, will make my CV a lot stronger and should boost my salary by £5,000 to £10,000. It will also give me greater kudos as an accountant at Honda. In many ways, doing this course has made me angry with my parents for not pushing me to stay in education. For the first time, I feel I am an intellectual person, not just a plodder."

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