What can the higher education sector learn from the growth in demand that is being experienced within the school and college sector?

Pat Carvalho, Principal, Birmingham Metropolitan College (BMET).

The pandemic has raised concerns about the readiness of young people to enter HE despite their academic achievements, so it is critical that higher education (HE) and further education (FE) institutions consider how they respond to the Journey to a Million in ways that build on existing successful strategies.

Birmingham, like other locations in the West Midlands, will see significant demographic growth up to and beyond 2028. This has already been seen in schools and more recently in the FE colleges in Birmingham. This paper looks at some of the tried and tested approaches adopted by these colleges. We hope that the paragraphs below will provide some practical guidance for the HE sector on how to manage the demographic uplift while ensuring that students have a rewarding educational experience at their institutions. There are no surprises in this paper regarding the focussed activities to manage a significant increase in student numbers, but this paper points to the increased resources (e.g., use of technology) and activities that bear consideration.

Maintain the quality of the student experience

  • Feedback routes for students are critical as they provide invaluable insight into how students are feeling/doing and help identify areas to focus resources on. For example, investing in software tools to help identify students who may not normally share how they feel and enable early support and engagement.
  • Have a dedicated named personal tutor for each student to discuss their academic goals and signpost to student/professional services.
  • Increase the ratio of seminars to lectures per module/across the modules taught to increase student engagement and Q&A. This is not a dumbing down of what is taught, but an acknowledgement that this type of engagement enables a metacognitive approach that reinforces independent learning and ensures all students are engaged.
  • Design bespoke transition activities across an institution to reach all students will help to settle students quickly.
  • Increase student engagement through enrichment. Sports, and clubs, for example, will benefit students’ mental health and their sense of belonging, key when they need to feel they matter and are not just a face among many.

Increase support to meet the needs of students with learning difficulties and disabilities

  • Focus on completing initial assessments that will provide students with the adaptation they need and will enable them to focus on their learning and university life. This also provides information on what support is required across the institution and helps facilitate decisions around resources in this area.
  • Establish at risk meetings across module leads to determine the required support needed. This point relates to the infrastructure of support initiated by institutions, and this could be well funded by APP funds.
  • Identify, through a dashboard, students’ characteristics in terms of widening participation and make sure this is accessible to teaching and support staff to enable tailored support. Understanding students’ educational background and attainment helps practitioners to adjust delivery.

Build upon existing partnership work with colleges

  • There are already well-established collaborative approaches with colleges. Considering co-design and co-delivery to share resource costs and income will provide a breadth of options for students entering HE — that will support the increase in students and particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. As elsewhere, in Birmingham there are long-standing relationships between FE and HE institutions. For example, we collaborate through the Birmingham and Solihull Institute of Technology (IoT) where we collectively provide provision from level 4 in engineering, construction, and digital sectors. At the heart of the collaboration is a building co-designed with employers that will benefit all students who are part of the IoT. This is in addition to individual FE/HE arrangements in place for HE delivery through, for example, Foundation Degrees, Higher Nationals, Level 6 top-ups, and progression agreements. This is an ideal time to build upon our existing relationships or indeed to forge new ones between FE and HE. 
  • Maximising opportunities to enhance understanding of potential students from schools and colleges through well understood widening participation activities that take place in schools and colleges already, will also help to further shape the support strategies for new entrants to higher education. 

The Journey to a Million is about more than increasing student numbers. For institutions who provide higher education it provides the opportunity to consider different approaches that can continue to secure the quality of the student experience to enable them to maximise their achievements. 

Pat Carvalho

Principal, Birmingham Metropolitan College (BMET)

Pat Carvalho has been in the FE sector for over 30 years taking up her first principalship in 2015.  She joined Birmingham Metropolitan College in 2021 as the Principal and CEO. She is a fervent supporter of the FE sector, particularly as it has played a pivotal part in her first career as well as enabling her to pursue higher education as a mature student which led to her entry into the FE sector as a computing lecturer having completed MSc in Artificial Intelligence and PGCE.

She is a strong advocate of partnerships, and a highlight of her career was leading the successful establishment of the West London Institute of Technology (IoT). In her current role, she is now a director on the Board of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull IoT as well as a Trustee on the UCAS Board.