From education to employment

Top 5 tips for making the transition from FE to HE

Jade Murden is a Senior Lecturer in Education Studies and Liz Atkins is Professor of Vocational Education and Social Justice at University of Derby

#ALevelResults day is widely covered by the mainstream media. However, little attention is paid to those young people receiving the results of their Vocational Qualifications (VQs) and hoping to progress to university. It is important to consider the needs and characteristics of these students: more young people take VQs than A-levels each academic year, predominantly in colleges of Further Education (FE).

The route to higher education will have been less straightforward than A-levels for many of these young people – some will come from areas with limited access to school sixth forms, or will just have wanted a different learning experience to that they had in school. Others will have received disappointing GCSE results and spent an additional year or so in further education before beginning a two-year level three programme, so they will be older – and more mature – than their peers moving to university, and this may have implications for them making the transition. The same is true for those young people who have returned to further education after a period of time out of education.

Further education is acknowledged to be heavily classed, catering largely for young people from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds (for example, see research by Colley, 2006; Atkins, 2009;2017). This, and their vocational background, means that many students will fall into the widening participation cohort – they are likely to be the first in their family to enter higher education, and may face challenges such as financial concerns.

These issues may seem to set new students from FE at a disadvantage, and yet many of the requirements of VQs serve as a good preparation for higher education. For example, many VQs are mainly continuously assessed and much of that assessment relies on coursework which has to be done independently. This is an excellent foundation for university, where students are expected to be progressively more independent in their learning as they work towards their degree.

One of the challenges for university lecturers is that VQs are designed around specific occupational areas, and many involve work placements. This means that Vocationally Qualified students may well begin a professional degree programme with established understanding of some of the foundational subjects, as well as insight into the demands and expectations of the profession. A-level students are less likely to have that occupational knowledge and experience, so early teaching requires a degree of differentiation that acknowledges the experiences of Vocationally Qualified students.

On the flipside, one of the first challenges for all new students is Freshers’ Week, which is actually a fortnight at some universities and provides the opportunity to get to know other students and staff. This year, with the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Freshers’ Week, for some, will be especially daunting, with students wondering how they might get to know people when traditional ‘Freshers’ activities will be impacted by social distancing.

Our advice is not to worry – university staff have been working throughout the pandemic to make sure that new students have the best possible social and learning experience. There will still be many opportunities to socialise and get to know other people, and clubs and societies will be recruiting new members.

We’d recommend new students follow these five top tips, designed to help them get off to flying start as they begin their university experience.

1. Treat feedback as a gift

At college you may have completed portfolio work, sat exams or had to prove competencies for an employer. Universities also utilise a range of assessment, some may be familiar, such as presentations, while others may be less so, for example, academic posters. Regardless of the type of assessment, our number one tip is to engage fully with the feedback you receive. Your feedback is personal and will provide you with areas for growth. Take the time to read it, digest it and act upon it and you will reap the rewards (higher marks next time!)

2. Get to know your library

Covid-19 has forced the world to work differently and education has had to adapt and move more content online. Navigating the online world will be particularly important this year and a great place to start is the university library. Your university library is much more than a place which houses books, it is the hub of the campus, designed with students in mind with expert librarians who are happy to support. Although your physical access may be different this year, we recommend that you explore the online platforms available to you. There will be study guides, online workshops and links to student services. Locate the sources in your module handbooks, find out how to make notes on e-books and build your own virtual bookcase.

3. Create a study timetable that works for you

FE provides an excellent environment for you to develop your independence and become an autonomous learner, as it offers more freedom than school. Use this experience to reflect on how you work best and create your own study timetable for university. You will be expected to complete pre-lecture activities and prepare for seminars alongside planning and creating your assessments, so organisation is crucial.

4. Independent working does not mean isolated learning

Do not underestimate the power of being in a study group or joining an academic society. Having the space to explore concepts and share new ideas is an exciting part of university life. Discussion and debate help to drive ideas forward and being around people who have different perspectives can really help you sharpen your line of argument. It doesn’t matter if the group meet at the university bar, in a study room or an online forum, the key is to share ideas, cement your understanding and inspire your work.

5. Keep connected to the things you love

HE is the perfect place to continue with the things you loved doing on your FE course. Many universities aim to create an excellent ‘student experience’. This includes state-of-the-art fitness centres, access to the top technology, trips which embrace the arts, culture and the outdoors. There are societies created for students, some are academic, other are purely social, so try new things, have fun, immerse yourself in student life and embrace being a student.

Jade Murden is a Senior Lecturer in Education Studies and Liz Atkins is Professor of Vocational Education and Social Justice at University of Derby


Both have extensive experience working in both further and higher education.


Atkins, L. 2009. Invisible Students, Impossible Dreams: experiencing vocational education 14-19. Stoke-on Trent: Trentham Books.
Atkins, L. 2016. “The Odyssey: School to Work Transitions, Serendipity and Position in the Field.” British Journal of Sociology of Education. 38, 5 pp 641-655 doi: 10.1080/01425692.2015.1131146
Colley, H. 2006. “Learning to Labour with Feeling: class, gender and emotion in childcare education and training.” Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood. 7 (1): 15-29. doi:10.2304/ciec.2006.7.1.15

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