Cornwall College: Bringing higher education closer to home

Two years at a further education college can be stepping stone to a degree
Click to follow

Mid-October and the freshers are gradually finding their feet at university. Yet for some students, those feelings of isolation amid the hurly-burly of campus life don't go away. This was the experience of Clare Farrow from North Devon, who dropped out of teacher training in Brighton after a couple of weeks.

"I was used to a small college environment in the countryside where I knew everybody and it was a real shock to the system to be in a busy city, in a big university, where I didn't know anybody," says Farrow, now 21 and back in higher education. "I just wasn't ready for it and really didn't enjoy the experience."

Farrow is now studying for a BSc in sports management at the University of Plymouth, having completed a two-year sports development foundation degree at Cornwall College. This provided the half-way house that enabled her to make that often tricky transition into higher education.

"After Brighton I took a year out to get some money together and that's when I found out about the foundation degree," says Farrow. "It's a much more practical, hands-on way to study, which I really enjoyed and it meant I didn't have to leave home."

Confidence boosted, Farrow then opted, like 35 per cent of Cornwall College's foundation students, to "top up" to a full honours degree by doing a further year's study at Plymouth.

"I've no regrets at all about doing it this way round," says Farrow. "I've spoken to people who did all three years at university and they missed out on the field work and practical experience I got with the foundation programme."

Farrow may even have given herself a head-start by spending two years of her degree programme at a further education college. According to Ken Woodcock, the senior vice-principal, the top-up students tend to do better than those who follow more traditional routes into higher education.

"We find our students go on to get a good range of firsts and upper seconds," says Woodcock. "They are not disadvantaged at all and I think this is because we drive them harder here than at universities."

He points to the smaller class sizes, which mean struggling students get the support they need and teachers aren't inundated with marking. What's more, further education colleges are not research-driven so there's more time to focus on teaching, ensuring more contact time for students.

It's a route that meets the current drive to widen access to higher education. Cornwall has no university of its own so would-be students must travel to gete a degree - but this is not always practical nor, as in Farrow's case, appealing.

"Cornwall is one of the 50 poorest areas in Europe, so there is no middle-class tradition of going away to higher education", says Woodcock. "People may have family or carer commitments that prevent them travelling, not to mention worries about the increasing costs of higher education."

Cornwall's higher education offering certainly appears to have tapped into a dormant need in the region, with the numbers of students growing by two-thirds in the past five years against a national rise of just under one-fifth. At present the college, the largest in the country, has 1,000 full-time and 1,000 part-time higher education students out of a total of 50,000.

There are plans to increase these numbers. As part of the Combined Universities In Cornwall initiative, the college is spending £20m over three years to increase its higher education provision and provide facilities comparable to a university. A wide range of courses is available, from the usual suspects such as business and sports management to the more eclectic, including animation, garden design, surf science and zoology.

Yet although numbers are on the rise, it seems there is still an information gap out there. "Because previous generations didn't have this route to follow, we find many teachers in schools and sixth forms are a bit confused about what goes on in further education colleges these days," says Woodcock. "The foundation degree is a bit of an unknown qualification."

Cornwall College graduate Clare Farrow echoes this. "It was only when I took a year out and was working that I found out about this option," she says. "I do think schools and colleges could play more of a role in letting people know about the foundation degrees because there are not many options down here in the south-west and not everyone wants to study by leaving home."