A Critique of Admissions and Interview Processes to Higher Education, Art & Design Courses in the context of Widening Participation and Social Mobility

The following piece was written in September 2012 as part of my PGCHE studies with the University of Kent.  The theme is that of widening participation in HE.

A critique of admissions and interview processes to Higher Education, Art & Design Courses in the context of Widening Participation and Social Mobility.

by Tim Bones © 2012

Widening Participation: Background & Definitions

“Widening participation in its recent manifestation begins in the late 1990s, more specifically in 1997 when [Tony] Blair and New Labour came to office on a campaign centered around “education, education, education’” (Bhaghat & O’Neil, 2011). In the September of 1999, Blair set a “target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century” (Blair, 1999). Arguably, the project may have been overly ambitious with entry to higher education for 17-30 year olds at 39.2% in 2000 and moving to just 39.8% in 2008 (Gill, 2008), and finally up to 43% by 2010 at the end of their term (Chowdry, et al 2008). However, this is a significant achievement when one considers that overall participation was just 5% in 1960. (Baker, 2010)

More recently, and of particular significance to widening participation, was the coming of the new coalition government that gave rise to significant increases in tuition fees. Partly to justify these fee increases and to ensure that universities would continue to increase participation amongst disadvantaged students, The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) introduced access agreements to regulate and enforce widening participation. For an HEI to fail to do so can lead to fines being taken “from the university or college’s grant” or it may ultimately prevent a university from charging “tuition fees above the standard level for a period after its access agreement has expired” (OFFA, 2012). A key part of OFFA’s widening participation policy is to reduce “the barriers to higher education for students from low income and other under-represented groups by ensuring that institutions continue to invest in outreach and financial support” (OFFA, 2012).

At the time of writing this it is evident that even with policy enforced directives designed to enable social mobility across higher education, the “elite universities have failed to make significant progress in attracting students from poorer backgrounds”, with the University of Cambridge being the “UK’s least socially diverse higher education institution” (Grove, 2012)

The following are working definitions of widening participation. HEFCE’s policy summarises widening participation as being “a broad expression that covers many aspects of participation in HE, including fair access and social mobility”  (HEFCE, 2012).

The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) states that “Both ‘widening participation’ and ‘fair access’ involve removing the barriers to higher education, including financial barriers, that students from lower income and other under-represented backgrounds face.” The notion of enforced policy to widen participation remains a contentious political issue, with the Labour Party being “particularly interested in pushing the widening participation agenda”, whilst the “Conservative Party has been particularly critical of attempts to widen access” with some viewing wider access as social engineering that could compromise the quality of higher education and which might also disadvantage those from the independent school sector (Taylor et al, 2004).

Interview Processes for Art & Design Courses

Art and design courses may have a particularly unique process of selection when compared with more traditional, academic courses. As well as the consideration of grade attainment—either from A levels or diploma equivalents—creative courses normally use a student’s portfolio of creative work as the main determinant of who is admitted to HE Art & Design degrees (McManus, 2011).

In most cases the applicant’s portfolio is viewed during an interview. In this situation, the student usually has the opportunity to discuss their work, and is expected to demonstrate—amongst many other varied and extensive things (see appendix 1)—their current creative skills and a readiness to engage with the course. In some instances course staff may simply request that the student leave their portfolio for viewing without an interview, and as such the course staff arrive at their decision based upon the UCAS application form and the portfolio alone.

One might argue that this process is fair, as it may help admissions staff form judgments based upon merit rather than the applicants’ personality or any potential bias based upon perceived background or cultural attributes. However, like many others—myself included—Dean, (2011) views the art & design interview as a “means to step outside of portfolio scores and qualifications to reach other kinds of understanding of the individual.”

These ‘other kinds of understanding’ are what might be referred to as ‘contextual data’. Contextual data is information that might be used “in addition to the stated qualifications and criteria for entry when considering applications for courses at universities and colleges” (SPA, 2011). An example of this would be the portfolio of creative work brought to interview by art and design students. On occasion this portfolio of contextual data might prove to be a greater determinant of skill, commitment and creativity than ‘A’ level results.

It is this data that Professor Les Ebdon, Director of OFFA is keen for HEIs to consider—though not enforce—as part of the admissions process (OFFA, 2012). Critics of OFFA’s policies and its efforts to have contextual data considered as a means of supporting social mobility and access to HE, claim that it will lead to a move “away from academic rigour and high standards” (Wilson, 2012), and have gone so far as to disparagingly refer to OFFA as the “Office for Social Engineering” (Wilson, 2012).  Conversely, others view the use of contextual data in admissions as being not so much a mechanism for social engineering, “but rather an acknowledgment that exam results in certain subjects alone paint a rather limited picture of a candidate’s ability and aptitude” (Burns, 2012). Particularly for Art & Design courses, the interview can give a substantial amount of contextual data about a student and their approaches to the creative process.

Agreeing about how one goes about using or measuring both the contextual data and the outcome of an interview is not easy.  Burke & McManus (2011), observed and questioned many of the accepted admissions processes of five UK Higher Education, Art & Design courses in different institutions where it was found that in some instances during the interview process, the decisions and judgements that were being reached regarding acceptance were, on occasion, being blatantly influenced by tutors’ perceptions of the interviewees’ class and cultural values, with middle class students being interviewed favourably, and to a lesser degree there were also inferences that the ethnicity of the interviewee may also have played a part in determining selection.

The K College Interview Process

All HE Graphic Design course applicants apply to K college via UCAS (The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service). Traditionally for Art & Design courses there were two routes of application, now there is just the one.  The applicant’s form is sent to our HE admissions department, where it is then forwarded to the Programme leader for processing. The form contains the following information:

  • Qualifications/Predicted Grades
  • Personal Statement
  • Reference
  • Current institution of study (if applicable)
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Nationality

The form may give the processing tutor an immediate impression of the applicant’s profile and their achievements to date. The Programme Leader can see if the applicant has the required entry qualifications or if it is predicted that they will gain them. The personal statement can be revealing, as this can give an insight into an applicant’s career aspirations and their creative activity to date.

Of particular interest to the team are the referee’s comments. If completed—which very often it is not—one can gain an insight into how the student has performed throughout their course, their predicted grades and design interests.

When the interviewees arrive at the college, they are given a talk by the course staff about what to expect, this includes such topics as course content, expectations and timetables. This usually lasts for about half and hour. We also show the work of former students to give prospective students an idea of the types of projects they will work on and the various design approaches that can be taken. This session also gives the student the opportunity to raise questions.

Following the initial talk the students are then asked to leave their portfolios behind and to leave the room. This is done so that the interviewing staff can view and comment upon the students’ work with a view to arrive at a judgement or recommendation. The portfolio viewing is important and decisive moment in determining an applicant’s potential for the course. The viewing can be a somewhat subjective process, with the admissions tutors simply using a relatively tacit, yet generally agreed understanding of what constitutes the right level and quality of work for entry, and despite using what we have always deemed to be a fair process, it is clear that from the observations of (Burke & McManus, 2011)—which will be discussed shortly—that the process we currently use is potentially at fault and almost certainly requires reviewing. It is during this brief session that staff will be looking for evidence of the following:

Quality of work

This not only includes the ability to execute a work with reasonable proficiency (for age and level) but also quality in the sense of presentation. Ideally we are looking for work that has been cared for; being clinically clean and meticulously well presented.

Evidence of creativity

Is the work striking in its approach or concept? Is there an indication that the interviewee has initiative and/or an unusual or fresh way of approaching the creative process? Once we arrive at judgments, we then invite the students in to be interviewed one at a time.

The Interview

The interview is the key part of the art & design selection process, one in which the aforementioned contextual data comes into consideration. As McManus, (2006) suggests, “When portfolios are good, the interview is largely a formality, when they are in the mid range (the majority) then tutors use the interview to assess such ‘attributes’ as motivation, enthusiasm and interest and whether these were students they could teach.”

This interview allows the student the opportunity to discuss their work and ask any questions that they might not have wanted to when in the group address. The questions vary depending on the member of staff, the information that they want to glean from the applicant, and their approaches to interviewing applicants, along with their teaching and interviewing experience.

The approaches to interviewing applicants within our team are varied. In recalling my own indelible memories of several varied and tough interview approaches that I experienced when applying for art college, my own approach to interviewing is to always try and put the applicant at ease, as I feel that the process can appear intimidating, even for the most confident of students, and I believe that the process should be a mutually positive one regardless of outcome.

One of my colleagues who has been teaching for more than 30 years and who has taught in colleges of good repute has a markedly different approach to me, one that brings to mind my own experience of being interviewed for a college place. Employing a somewhat authoritative tone and slightly interrogative approach, his questions are almost always the same, and generally include the following:

  • What books have your read recently?
  • Tell me about the last exhibition you went to?
  • Tell me about the last film you watched at the cinema?
  • What newspaper do you read?
  • Tell me about the any designers who influence your work?

This line of questioning can be useful to identify a candidate’s interests and influences, but as McManus et al, (2005) noticed when observing art & design interviews, that these lists of questions often require “almost canonical ‘right’ answers”, and of the ability to discuss work and articulate ideas, MacManus suggests that “some applicants, predominantly those who are middle class, are able to talk their way onto the course.”  Of this ability Reid, (2007) notes, “Being able to ‘talk’ your way onto an Art and Design course requires a number of skills and attributes.” Reid suggests that in order to do this with confidence one requires a “familiarity with the linguistic conventions of the art and design community,” and that this familiarity is “far more likely to create a favourable impression on the interviewers,” adding that, “The interview in particular, the chief tool to filter applicants post-assessment of a portfolio of work, that is the most important causal factor in the low conversion rate from applications to places from working class, ‘disadvantaged’ or underrepresented, applicants.”

McManus’s observations appear to suggest that tutors may often expect these young applicants, whose average age is 17-18 years old, to possess an unrealistic amount of what Bourdieu, (1986) referred to ‘cultural and social capital’. As Reid, (2007) suggests, this form of knowledge and understanding “equips an individual with empathy towards, appreciation for or competence in deciphering cultural relations and cultural artifacts.” Adding that, “social and cultural capital is unequally distributed among the social classes.” As such, the often ‘high’ cultural values and experiences that a mature, middle class lecturer may hold, may not be the entirely appropriate ones by which to judge the abilities of a young, less culturally experienced or under-privileged person. Yet this approach is one that both my colleagues and myself are unquestionably guilty of using to a certain degree, albeit unwittingly until now.

Again, in relation to tutor expectations, Burke & McManus (2011), observed that,

One of the most striking themes to emerge from the data was the wide range of expectations of the candidates that admissions tutors bring to their decision-making and the selection process. The sheer breadth of the different kinds of characteristics and attributes the admissions tutors cited in terms of what they were looking for in potential students for their courses is noteworthy. For example, the expectations included the following points.

  • Wide knowledge of contemporary art
  • Ability to develop ideas, visually and conceptually
  • Demonstrate potential
  • Critical analysis and thought-process
  • Communication of ideas
  • Enthusiasm
  • Motivation

(The full list can be seen in Appendix 1)

Perhaps we should not be entirely surprised by the exacting selection processes and middle class cultural bias that Burke and McManus observed, particularly when one considers that many of the teaching staff on HE graphic design courses will have come to teaching from careers within the Graphic Design industry, particularly its primary manifestation, advertising, an industry that has traditionally been perceived as a workforce consisting of  “middle class, public school and Oxbridge educated individuals” (McLeod et al, 2009).


The findings, particularly that of Burke & McManus highlight a need for a far greater institutional awareness of how widening participation can be supported and implemented prior to, and during the admissions and interview process. Despite the numerous flaws identified within the general system of interviewing for art & design courses, I am inclined to agree with Burke and McManus when they conclude that it is “crucial to resist the creation of a ‘how to’ list, or a set of tick boxes” and that there should be “no universal rules [for interviewing] to ensure inclusion, equality and anti-discrimination, not least because these issues are contextual and different individuals bring to those contexts complex formations of identity.” Instead they propose a set of recommendations that appear to be devised to encourage an awareness of how the process should be conducted in order to be more inclusive. For example, interviewing staff should avoid many of the typically used questions that could be perceived as being “value loaded”. Instead questions should be designed to “value different sets of experiences and perspectives, taking into account the candidates’ age and socio-cultural background” (Burke & McManus, 2011).

This awareness of process should be the responsibility of all staff who deal with students either directly or indirectly. At a more personal level, I have used and discussed the findings of this essay with colleagues and intend to make explicit amongst colleagues these recommendations to enhance what was probably a rather tacit and routine interview process. Of particular note, I am concerned about not making judgments based upon our own individual or collective cultural values. These judgements, of course have to be reasoned in that within the context of widening participation, staff still must be sure that the consideration of any contextual data helps them decide whether or not an applicant is likely to thrive or struggle throughout the course.

It perhaps should be considered that these recommendations make their way into our college’s admissions policy, because as Davies, (2000) put it, “Widening participation is about changing the system to value diversity—so that selectivity and privilege are no longer normalized around notions of ‘quality’ and the ‘best’ student. It’s all about ‘fairness for the future’ and maximizing opportunity for all.”

Also, perhaps prior to the applications process, it might be that as a teaching and admissions staff we identify and go to schools and colleges to perhaps prime students about the interview process, to help demystify it somewhat and to support potential applicants with preparing their portfolios for discussion, particularly given that as HEFCE, (2002) point out, “the portfolio process is complex and pupils in schools in deprived areas where admission to art school is a rarity are often ill equipped to develop a portfolio of a high standard.”

Bibliography & References

Baker, M. 2010,
University target under pressure
BBC News
Viewed 5/8/12

Blair, T. 1999,
Tony Blair’s speech in full
UK Politics
Viewed 5/8/12

Burns, L. 2012,
Les Ebdon is the right choice to lead university access watchdog
Viewed 8/8/12

Burke & McManus, 2009
Art for a few
Exclusion and Misrecognition in Art and Design Higher Education Admissions
National Arts Learning Network (NALN) Research Report

Chowdry,H., Crawford, C., Dearden, L., Goodman, A., & Vignoles, A. 2008,
Widening Participation in Higher Education:
Analysis using Linked Administrative Data
The Institute for Fiscal Studies

Davies, D. 2000,
Widening Participation as Lifelong Learning
Viewed 1/8/12

Dean, F. 2011,
Dipti Bhagat and Peter O’Neill (eds)
Border Crossings: In/exclusion and Higher Education in Art & Design
Inclusive Practices, Inclusive Pedagogies
Learning from Widening Participation Research in Art and Design Higher Education. (CHEAD)

Gill, J. 2008,
Labour concedes that it won’t deliver its 50% target on time
Times Higher Educational (online)
Viewed 5/8/12

Grove, J. 2012,
Offa finds Oxbridge access growth at a plateau
Viewed 5/8/12

Hoare, A & Johnston, R. 2011,
Widening participation through admissions policy – a British case study of school and university performance
Studies in Higher Education, 36:1, 21-41
Viewed 6/6/12

HEFCE. 2012,
Widening participation policy
Viewed 7/8/12

HEFCE, 2002
Social Class and Participation
Good practice in widening access to higher education
The follow up report to From Elitism to Inclusion

Hudson, C and Jamieson, J. 2006,
Widening participation in higher education art and design
A research project commissioned by the Council for Higher Education in Art & Design (CHEAD)

McManus, J. 2011
Dipti Bhagat and Peter O’Neill (eds)
Every word starts with ‘dis’: the impact of class on choice, application and admissions to prestigious higher education art and design courses.
Inclusive Practices, Inclusive Pedagogies
Learning from Widening Participation Research in Art and Design Higher Education. (CHEAD)

McLeod, C., O’Donohoe, S. and Townley. B. 2009,
The Elephant in the Room? Class and creative careers in British advertising agencies. Viewed 3/7/12

OFFA. 2012,
Aims and objectives
<> Viewed 7/8/12

Reay, D, Crozier, G, & Clayton, J. 2010,
‘Fitting in’ or ‘standing out’: working-class students in UK higher education
British Educational Research Journal
Vol. 36, No.1, February 2010, pp. 107-124

Reid, E. 2007,
The Problem with Cultural Capital in Art and Design Higher Education
Viewed 4/8/12

Skeggs, B. 2004,
Class, Self, Culture

Sheeran, Y. July 2012,
The fairer the better?
Times Higher Educational
Viewed 18/07/12

Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA). 2011,
Contextual Data in Admissions.
Viewed 8/8/12

Taylor, G., Mellor, L., & Walton, L. 2009,
The Politics of Widening Participation: A review of the literature
Active learning, Active Citizenship
University of Birmingham

White, M. 2012,
University access should be based on merit – but how do you measure it?
The Guardian
February, Viewed 6/7/12

Wilson, R. 2012,
Comment: interfering in university access is heading in wrong direction
The Telegraph
Accessed 8/8/12

Woodrow, M. 2003
White Paper: The Future of Higher Education. 2003
Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning Vol 2 No 3
Education and Skills Committee.
Viewed 3/8/12

Appendix 1.

– wide knowledge of contemporary art
– some knowledge of fashion designability
– ability to visually interpret
– ability to develop ideas, visually and conceptually
– breadth of understanding of various media
– critical understanding
– particular interest
– demonstrate potential
– expected to visit the college/course/site
– willingness to budget for and cover the cost of resources
– has an easy journey into college
– ‘unusual’
– ‘on the edge of society’
– looking for evidence of inspiration
– critical analysis and thought-process
– use of colour
– communication of ideas
– enthusiasm
– motivation
– good at self-promotion
– vibrant
– strong visual portfolio
– ‘talk really well’
– great team player
– ‘incredibly interesting’
– ‘incredibly entertaining’
– creative mind
– invention
– wit
– reflective
– organised
– ability to meet deadlines
– putting it on paper–in words
– not averse to writing
– ability to express themselves
– ‘have they got something to say’
– onus on student to know about the course
– attended an open day
– ‘You know it when you see it’
–  knowledge of technology and computers

Burke & McManus, 2011


Critical Perspectives on Academic Practice

The following are two short pieces written in June, 2012 as part of my PGCHE studies with the Univeristy of Kent. Both pieces are reflective in nature and have been written from both a personal and professional viewpoint as an HE in FE design lecturer.

Critical Perspectives on Academic Practice
by Tim Bones

Managing Student Expectations

“When students arrive at university, they carry with them a host of expectations about higher education – expectations that can be easily disappointed.”  Fearn and Marcus (2008)

It is with this opening comment in mind, that for the first part of this essay, I shall be discussing issues pertaining to student expectations. How these present themselves; the impact they have on all parties concerned, and to discuss approaches to managing student expectations. I shall do this in part via a particular case study of my own recent experience.

As Voss et al (2007) state, “…if higher education organisations have a good understanding of such students’ expectations, they should be in a better position to both manage and bring them to a realistic level.

However, achieving a ‘realistic level’ is a somewhat moot point in terms of what is feasibly achievable. The concept of a realistic level is a difficult problem to resolve, as it not only involves broad range of individual expectations, it also requires engineering a certain degree of mutual understanding between the university, the student as a learner, and the student as a paying customer. Ramsden (2008) stresses that “the idea of a single experience or set of expectations has no meaning. Higher education in this country is no longer dominated by 18 to 21 year olds living on campus, studying full time, attending classes…” adding that “their [student] expectations are as varied as their experiences.”

Therefore, clarity from the university, in terms of what a student can realistically expect from them, not only in terms of teaching and learning, but also with regards to support and social events, etc, is paramount in avoiding disappointment and may reduce the potential for poor retention. The university also needs to be as explicit as possible in terms of what the functions of higher education are, what their chosen course entails and to prepare and equip students for employment.

Students attending a college or university for the first time, or who are returning after a many years, may arrive with fixed preconceptions or possess “unrealistic expectations” about Higher Education. Voss et al, (2007). These notions may be formed by number of factors including–among many possibilities–second hand experiences, the internet, prospectuses, open days, etc. Conversely students occasionally arrive for interviews with absolutely no idea what to expect, having conducted little or no prior research into their course and the university of their choice.

One expectation that appears to have become increasingly strong is that of the consumerist concept of getting a return for the money students are investing into their education. I have found that an increasing number of our mature students will sometimes infer that their money is a means by which they can literally purchase the knowledge and insight that will in turn allow them to obtain good grades irrespective of their application. This concern is echoed by Mulholland & Osmond (2008) who state, “consumer principles have cut across into university life, and combined with an increase in the cost of Higher Education to the student, has led them to increasingly expect that they will be treated as consumers whilst at university.” Of course anyone parting with what are set to become increasingly vast sums of money for an education should rightly have a voice in the quality of the service that they receive, however, this is may conflict with some of the principles of HE. The Inquiry by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee into Students and Universities (2009) is “concerned to ensure that the idea of students as ‘customers’ does not take hold as this misses opportunities to develop the student experience as an active partnership between students and those who teach and support student learning.” 

Ferudi (2009) is more pointedly critical of the concept of the student consumer conflicting with the vales of Higher Education, stating that,

“Of course the reality is that the customer is not always right, especially in higher education. What counts as a good student experience – friendly atmosphere, progressive marking, lots of spoon-feeding, great social life – may have little to do with the provision of a challenging and high-quality education.”

Ferudi adds that,

“The celebration of the assertion of customer interests is part of a misguided attempt to hold higher education to account according to the doctrine of value for money. It is misguided because the customer model’s implicit assumption of a conflict of interest between client and service provider inexorably erodes the relationship of trust between teacher and student on which academic enterprise is founded.”

The following describes a very specific set of expectations related to subject preconceptions. Almost an entire year group (HND Graphic Design, Year 1) became quite vocal in giving specific demands for what they believe are the essential skills for a career in graphic design. These initial expectations almost always centre on the acquisition of technical skills, particularly the making of digital pictures. The students appear to be sourcing their opinions of what constitutes graphic design from the proliferation of design blogs and magazines such as ‘Computer Arts’ and ‘Digital Arts’, which are very much technique driven.

Whilst I positively encourage students to look at these sources for general inspiration, these sources appear compound their idea that the digital fine art they are wanting me to teach is in fact graphic design. The emphasis of the work showcased in many of the online sources is solely focused on technical trends. However, whilst as a design tutor I recognise the importance of researching certain trends and keeping technical skills honed and current, the problem is that this frequently gives the students an extremely misguided notion that this work is representative as that of the work produced by graphic designers as a part of their daily profession.

As such, the work students frequently refer to as graphic design, is often more akin to fine art, or at best, graphic art. The work sourced, and the work they wish to produce is seldom formed with design brief in mind. By that I mean a client brief that moves towards resolving a specific set of visual communication problems, such as an illustration that illuminates a narrative, or a typographic work that manipulates a specific audience to perform a certain action, i.e., to persuade, inform, act, etc. Instead, the showy visual work they wish to be taught is often self-indulgent, which, in terms of graphic design, largely misses the point of working to a clients’ dictate rather than for one’s own pleasure.

Some of the graphic design versus fine art issues may appear to an outsider to be splitting hairs, however, this remains quite a contentious issue within graphic design education. When a student’s preconceived ideas are challenged or even shattered this can result in a sense of disappointment all round. Marshall & Austin (2004) warn design tutors of the potential for graphic design courses becoming “training rather than academic” and to prevent them from solely focusing “on software skills rather than graphic design in its wider context”. They also acknowledge the problem faced by those teaching design,referring to the “tension exists between education and industry regarding the preparation of students in specialised software or creativity”, adding that, “changes in industry happen much faster than in education, making it difficult for education to keep up with the world of work.”

So what might be a realistic and achievable means to prevent such serious conflicts of interest?  Many of the problems associated with student expectations and educational providers may be resolved by giving clear IAG (Information, Advice and Guidance), which as the 1994 Group (2010) points out, “will support [prospective students] in making realistic and well-informed choices” as to what the student can expect prior to, throughout and after study.

Many university websites contain pages detailing what students can expect during study. For example, Worcester University (2011), has a webpage entitled ‘What will my course be like?’, which goes on to explain that, “your time may be considerably less structured than at school or college and you will be encouraged to take ownership of your learning experience.”  It continues, “Ultimately, you are in control of your own learning. In order to do well, you will need to develop effective study strategies.” This clearly suggests that the onus is on the student to be aware that they are largely responsible for their learning.

As well as pre-enrolment information being given, interviews are a good opportunity to advise students. Spreading the information over a period of time may help reinforce messages, as students can become overloaded with information during induction. As Fearn (2008) points out,  “Most universities in the UK pack a number of orientation and briefing events into just one week – Freshers Week. In the US, however, induction or orientation programmes are often scheduled over the whole of the first term…” This could prove to be far more effective than one intense set of sessions.

Jones & Gaffney (2008), suggest that well drafted learning agreements may go some way to resolving the problem in actually curbing “consumerist tendencies”, helping students recognise that they “are members of a community and co-producers of knowledge and skills.”  However, there is the potential for this formal agreement to become overly detailed, stifling and prescriptive to the point where it could become untenable or litigiously difficult to interpret if either party were to fall short of an agreement.

To conclude, it is perhaps too easy to believe that higher education tutors are going to have increasingly unreasonable demands placed upon them. However, like any other aspect of education, planning, implementing and reflective revision may potentially be the way forward in affording concerned parties the opportunity to shape educational experience. Ramsden (2008) warns of educators talking the issue into a problem that is greater than imagined, concluding that,

Hard evidence that students in higher education are more passive and consumer-minded than they used to be is slim; but this dystopian picture of today’s students and the likely students of tomorrow has the incipient signs of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It presents a threat to our reputation for quality. We must articulate a different view to meet the challenge that this distorted image presents.

Area 2. HE in FE: Professionalism and Professional Bodies

The second area for discussion is professionalism and the issues surrounding professional bodies and how they have a direct influence upon the status, development, and identity of lecturers, particularly within the context of my being a full time Higher Education lecturer within a Further Education environment at K College, Kent.

What is meant by ‘Professional’ in terms of an HE in FE lecturer working today? The Institute for Learning (IfL) — the professional teaching body to which I am obliged to belong — states rather vaguely that it “may be fruitless to try and pin down one exact meaning [of professionalism], like many words and concepts it has different dimensions and changes over time…” IfL (2009). Erring on the side of caution, the IfL use the OED’s definition that professionalism as a named entity is defined as ‘the qualities or typical features of a profession or of professionals especially competence and skill’

A lecturers’ knowledge and skills base are often vast when compared with many other occupations. For example, with specific regard to teacher professionalism, Robson (2006) makes a very significant point concerning the amount of knowledge required to teach a subject, stating that,

Unlike engineers, lawyers or nurses, for example, who all acquire specialist knowledge that is directly related to their field of practice, most teachers in post compulsory education are faced with first acquiring specialist knowledge of their chosen subject, and then the knowledge of how to teach it.”

This is certainly true when considering my own professional identity, and that of my colleagues teaching on courses traditionally considered vocational such as Graphic Design. After completing my HE design education, I undertook a Certificate of Education (Cert.Ed) and despite gaining the certificate and having a design education — and therefore being academically qualified to teach — I made the decision that I would not teach until I had what I deemed to be sufficient professional and commercial experience. I worked as a freelance designer for five years before taking up a teaching position, as this afforded me the opportunity to gain the skills and insight required to show others how to do it. Having practiced and investigated my subject and profession in depth, I felt confident in returning to teaching without feeling like a charlatan.  FE lecturers appear to place significant value on their industry gained skills “since so much of their credibility is attached to their prior occupational role”. Robson (2006)

Returning to that, which now defines and guides my professional teaching status as an HE in FE lecturer; I work within an FE environment and I am therefore bound by not only by the contract of this institution as an FEC employee, but that I am also obliged to remain a Member of the Institute for Learning (MIfL) in order to legally practice teaching in an FE environment. The IfL has its own professional ‘Code of Practice’, IfL, (2011) to which I am bound. This code lists expected members’ behaviours as:

  • Integrity
  • Respect
  • Care
  • Practice
  • Disclosure
  • Responsibility

‘Practice’, the fourth behaviour, refers to CPD (Continuing Professional Development) and the IfL (2011), states that all “members shall provide evidence to the Institute that they have complied with the current CPD policy and guidelines”. This evidence for this CPD comes in the form of compulsory online reflection upon 30 hours of varied CPD activity. Lecturers may describe and reflect upon almost any aspect of their professional development. For example, one might reflect upon on training received, or a conference or exhibition attended, etc. The lecturer is then asked to describe the reason for undertaking the activity, describe the knowledge and skills gained, and to describe the impact of the activity. The reflective pieces are then labelled as either ‘Subject Specialism’, ‘Learning and Teaching’ and ‘Institutional Context’, or a mixture of the three. Other than observing the code of practice, this activity is the single act required of an IfL member. This can appear to be a scant and narrow requirement, which has led some lecturers to question whether they receive significant benefits beyond an annual form-filling exercise…Lee (2011)

As a paying member of an imposed professional body, I too question the benefits or usefulness of the IfL in terms of my professional development and identity as an HE in FE lecturer, and though I view reflection as an essential activity for lecturers–an activity that I perform consciously as a lecturer on a daily basis–I expect a professional body like the IfL to have mechanisms in place to enable my advancement as a professional practitioner and to potentially enhance my career prospects in a more measurable way. For example, within my prior profession, the UK graphic design industry has the Chartered Society of Designers (CSD) as its professional body. The CSD uses a points based system that allows designers to earn training points for engaging in activities such as publishing a paper, mentoring or attending a CSD seminar. Each activity is worth a certain number of points. The member can then put these points towards the 12 modules required for the award of the Design Association’s, Diploma in Design Business Management. This is a genuine incentive for engaging purposely with one’s profession in a wider context other than simply working as a jobbing designer.

The generally poor staff development of HE within FE could perhaps be partly resolved by allowing HE in FE lecturers to leave the IfL and apply to join the Higher Education Academy (HEA). In comparison to the IfL, the HEA appears to have a more rigorous set of entry requirements based upon professional standards set by The UK Professional Standards Framework (UK PSF) for Teaching and Supporting Learning in Higher Education (2006). There are three levels of membership: Associate, Fellow and Senior Fellow and membership for each level requires evidence that the applicant satisfies specific elements of the UK PSF. The HEA is keen for members to engage and contribute discipline specific ‘Subject Centres’, of which the Art & Design centre has vast amounts of useful information, both subject and pedagogic specific.

With 172,000 students studying HE in FE, which equates to over 10% of the total undergraduate population, (UCU, 2010) the HEA actively support those working in HE in FE providing workshops that often focus on aspects of scholarly activity, other than reflection. As the HEA (2011) stress, “scholarly activity is a requirement for achieving professional recognition in the higher education sector.” Having been engaged in small-scale pedagogic action research project focusing on Graphic Design education, I am keen to undertake such an activity again, but as Robson (2006) points out that FE teaching workloads are significantly greater than in universities. Whilst 37 hours per week is treated as the norm in many FE institutions, annual teaching hours may reach 800 or 900 in some cases. This leaves very little time for subject specific research projects, shadowing or writing.

References & Bibliography

Fearn, H. & Marcus, J. Living the Dream. The Times Higher Educational.  Accessed 12/5/11

Voss, R. Gruber, T. and Szmigin, I. 2007. Service Quality in Higher Education. Journal of Business Research, 60: 949-959 Available:  Accessed 16/5/11

Ramsden, P. The Future of Higher Education Teaching and the Student Experience accessed 14/4/11

Mulholland, C. and Osmond, B. 2008. Student Expectations, University of Glamorgan. Online. Accessed 10/06/11

The Inquiry by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee into Students and Universities. Memorandum 49.  Online. Accessed 4/4/11

Furedi, F. 2009. Now is the Age of the Discontented. Times Higher Educational. Accessed 12/5/11

Marshall, L. and Austin, M. 2004. The Relationship Between Software Skills and Subject Specific Knowledge, Theory and Practice. Online. Accessed 6/6/11

1994 Group, Managing Students’ Expectations of University, Policy Report, November 2010. Online. Accessed 14/4/11

Jones, J and Gaffney-Rhys, R. 2008. How would the implementation of a “learning agreement” impact student expectation and satisfaction?…/Joannna_Jones.doc
Accessed 30/03/11

IfL, 2009, Professionalism and the role of professional bodies: A stimulus paper from the Institute for Learning

Robson, J. 2006. Teacher Professionalism in Further and Higher Education. Changes to Culture and Practice. Routledge.

IFL Code of Professional Practice

Lee, J, 2010.  Tertiary – Lecturers may boycott IfL in backlash against fee increase. TES Connect. Online. Accessed 12/06/11

The UK Professional Standards Frameworkfor Teaching and Supporting Learning in Higher Education, HEA ?(2006)

Hurrell, L. 2009. Face to Face: A Professional Identity in Crisis or a Resolution through Research

Benefer, R, Jenkins, D, McFarlane,K and Reed, R. 2009. The HE in FE experience and culture for staff. (Staffordshire University)
Online. Accessed 13/06/11

Widdowson, J. 2003. HE in FE and scholarly activity – a discussion paper.

Jones, R, 2006. Scholarly Activity in the context of HE in FE