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Further education college versus university: how do degree studies differ?

You don’t have to head to a traditional campus uni to study for a degree these days – many universities now run franchise-style undergraduate courses in further education (FE) colleges, too.

While the end result – a degree (hopefully!) – will be the same from either type of institution, the experience you’ll have getting there will most likely be pretty different. Here’s how.

1. Student population

  • Size: no surprises here, but expect universities to be bigger than colleges and often spread across multiple sites. It really comes down to which type of setting you prefer
  • Age: student populations at universities tend to be predominantly 18 – 25 (with a smattering of mature students). In FE colleges, you’ll be rubbing shoulders with anyone from 16 – 60, and rising
  • Studies: in a typical university scenario, students are studying for undergraduate, postgraduate and doctorate level qualifications. FE colleges offer a more diverse mix, and are usually less traditionally ‘academic’ – with courses on anything from basic skills, vocational subjects and apprenticeships to A-levels, BTECs and more.

2. Teaching

Tutors teaching a degree course at an FE college will certainly know their stuff and how to deliver it, in the same way you’d expect from a tutor at a university. Chances are some will lecture and teach across both types of institution.

There may be a difference in the classroom atmosphere. Some students feel it’s more relaxed and intimate in an FE setting, and there are often smaller class sizes – meaning you may get more opportunity to ask questions and get involved in open discussions.

On the other hand, are you as likely to see prominent university professors teaching at their franchised FE college campus? Possibly not. But it depends how important this is to you.

3. Long-term prospects

Employment do employers prefer one over the other? This really depends on who is doing the hiring, but the substance and class of your degree, along with work experience and extra-curricular stuff you’ve done to boost your CV, will be the key factor in whether or not you’ll get the job, as opposed to where you studied

Prestige a traditional university environment might be more to your liking if a strong research reputation or league table performance is important to you, and it could sway an employer if they’re of a similar mindset. Again, it’s down to making the right call for you and your circumstances – and remember, an FE franchised degree will officially be awarded by the partner university (only a handful of FE colleges are able to award their own two-year foundation degrees).

4. Location

It all depends what your priorities are. If living at home and studying nearby is top of your list, then there’s likely to be an FE college offering university courses near you. On the other hand, you may want the live-in experience of a campus uni, or the buzz and activity of a big city uni.

Increasingly, unis themselves have split sites, so the centre of action could be far away.

5. Resources

Most FE colleges will have the same quota of labs, classrooms and workshops as a uni - complete with identical pressures on space and time, so form an orderly queue wherever you are studying.

Will a franchise college be as well-equipped in terms of other facilities such as libraries? Not necessarily – but as a franchise college student, you should be able to access full university facilities.

Similarly, careers and student advisers will be in evidence at franchised colleges, but you might find that availability and accessibility is better on main university campuses.

6. Entertainment

At a university, the union may (or may not) be central to student life – but either way there’s likely to be more opportunities to socialise, party and get involved with things like clubs and societies at a uni than at an FE college. Not a problem for those who can make their own way or their own fun, of course – but could be less appealing if you’re looking for that all-round ‘student experience’.

You’ll find both traditional universities and FE colleges listed in our uni profiles section – which includes key info, pros, cons and insider views from students.

What the Higher Education experts have to say...

Many FE colleges have delivered degree-level higher education successfully for a number of years. And there have been a number of long-standing partnerships between FE colleges and universities to provide high quality programmes.

These partnerships, many of which have been built up over a number of years, provide critical resources and services for students, and deliver outstanding results for local economies and local employers. It is important to stress that all higher education courses face the same rigorous checks and audits.

Universities Uk

Colleges in England offer a range of higher education qualifications: foundation and undergraduate degrees, Higher National Certificates and Diplomas, part-time professional Certificates and Diplomas and teacher training for the learning and skills sector.

Many students are part-time and choose college study as it is near their home, reducing their living expenses some colleges are simply the 'local' university for their town. Colleges provide a unique learning environment, which often means continuity for students and offer an extremely supportive learning environment.
Nick Davy | Association Of Colleges - Higher Education Policy Manager



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