How good is your college HE library?

Lis Parcell offers considerations for colleges developing their higher education provision.

It may come as a surprise that FE colleges across the UK teach higher education. Yet according to the AoC, 162 colleges in England (69%) offered HE in 2020/2021 while 118,000 people studied at HE level in a college setting. Colleges in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland also offer HE. Their students follow a variety of pathways including HNC, HND, foundation degrees, higher apprenticeships and even postgraduate awards. Look at most college websites and you’ll spot images of students on graduation day, resplendent in gowns and mortarboards. Colleges are justifiably proud of what their HE students achieve, often in challenging circumstances.

Yet it’s noticeable that the priority given to resourcing and planning library services for HE in colleges can vary a great deal. In some places, they can seem like a ‘Cinderella’ service. Some of the possible reasons for this might be:

  • Outdated images

Decision-makers may not be fully up-to-date on what a quality library service looks like. There can be assumptions that a physical library is an old-fashioned concept, or that digital academic resources are easily available online without intermediary library facilitation.

  • The ‘digital native’ myth dies hard

HE students may be academically able and many (not all) will have grown up in a digital society. Yet we know that this doesn’t mean being fluent in how to use libraries and information for academic purposes. Most HE students need guidance to develop the digital capabilities needed for independent study. Library staff can be a key resource here, often working alongside other professionals to provide joined-up support.

  • (Lack of) communication

In some colleges, library staff are not included in communications about changes to university partnerships and HE courses. This can mean students are frustrated, unable to access key resources to complete assignments. This is not true everywhere, of course. Some universities extend digital library resources to partner colleges, but this depends on the nature of the relationship. Some go further, providing CPD for partner college librarians on topics such as the latest academic databases. Where communications are less strong, students are likely to miss out on the resources they need.


Key considerations

Perhaps you’re reading this because your college is reviewing or expanding its HE provision? If so, here are some elements you need to consider for your library to give your students a positive experience, digitally and otherwise. (Of course, many of these points could apply to library/learning resources services for FE as well).


HE library staffing

Dedicated staffing is a must if you want to provide HE-appropriate library services on any scale. Typical activities include:

  • teaching of academic information skills (they may involve collaboration with other support staff or teachers)
  • creating guidance, e.g. on how to do a literature search in your subject
  • management of content to support HE reading and information needs
  • liaison with HE curriculum staff – collaboration is vital to meeting HE students’ library needs
  • participation in HE library professional networks to enable service improvement
  • front-line support, including supervision of HE-appropriate learning spaces


HE resources management

Staff need the skills and experience to:

  • select learning sources in consultation with HE teaching staff (for example evaluating an increased range of Jisc HE in FE licence agreements)
  • provide access to content (introducing, where necessary, systems or tools to enable students to discover academic content)
  • promote, analyse and review usage of resources so that the college obtains best value from its spend on journals, e-books and academic databases
  • stay up to date in the fast-changing area of HE resources (for example, knowing how to locate open access research)


HE library spaces

Students will need and expect a choice of environments for different study purposes. Some colleges may create separate HE centres, while others will look at zoning library spaces or even creating ‘branded’ HE rooms. Social study spaces in libraries are commonplace today, but at HE level, access to quiet, digitally-equipped study space is vital, especially when students lack suitable space at home (for example due to caring responsibilities). HE spaces need appropriate supervision with staff on hand to assist with queries and signpost students to any help they need.


Academic skills

It’s a myth that HE students arrive fully equipped to cope with the extra demands of reading and organising information at level 4. Even the friendliest HE environment can feel intimidating. A recent Wonkhe post suggests many areas where new university students struggle to get their bearings. HE librarians understand the challenges and can offer dedicated support and training, putting students at ease and enabling them to make the most of what the library offers. This includes the core skills of being able to navigate digital and non-digital sources, and being able to judge the credibility and validity of information in different media.


The trickle down effect

Having a member of staff in the library/learning resources team with an HE specialist role has wider benefits too. Experience gained through HE work such as advanced information skills can cascade to the wider library team, thus benefitting even more students. While it can be helpful to separate HE and FE facilities for some purposes, experienced college librarians tell us that they prefer to avoid a hard and fast split of spaces and resources. You may want be flexible in your policies. Resources acquired initially for HE may (licenses permitting) be offered more widely. Other beneficiaries of a richer HE library collection might include staff carry out research as part of their professional practice, the more able access students, and students undertaking small research projects at level 3.

Great expectations

At HE level, student expectations of library services can be high. An effective library service with trained, experienced staff is not only a wise strategy if you want to aim for high NSS scores. An inspiring library could give your HE students the edge, and a sense of belonging in a new academic, digital world. And what could be fairer than that?


If you would like further guidance on evaluating and improving your college’s HE library provision to support your digital ambitions, your account manager can put you in touch with subject specialists in our member support team.

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