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

Author: By Kate Hilpern

“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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