April 2018 - Mind your language: why HE-in-FE is a divisive phrase that promotes inequality, Terry McDonough

Language matters. It’s as much about the words we use, as it is about what those words reveal about how we think. There’s an entire branch of linguistics devoted to this topic. It’s known as Cognitive Linguistics (Evans & Green, 2009; Ungerer & Schmid, 1996). One of the oldest and most accessible frameworks in Cognitive Linguistics is called Conceptual Metaphor Theory (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). The idea is that human language is structured by a set of basic embodied concepts (Johnson, 1990; Lakoff & Johnson, 1999).

Let me illustrate. A phrase like ‘higher education in further education (HE-in-FE)’ is a container metaphor. Something is inside of something else. Container metaphors are common. We fall in and out of love, for example. The idea is that we feel like we are these thinking things (minds) that are inside these fleshy vessels (bodies), and we know that these fleshy vessels can go inside other non-fleshy vessels, like a house or a car. All very practical.

What about being inside a country, then? It’s a bit more abstract. We draw boundary-lines on diagrams and give these bounded containers a name. This container is England. This container is France. We can’t even move from one bounded container to another without a lot of fuss. We even have big discussions about whether our bounded containers are in or out of other bounded containers. You caught the EU referendum, I imagine? Quite a lot of talk about containers and which container belongs where. Quite a lot of talk about other people, too, and which container they ought to reside in. I love this container. This is my container. You are not allowed in my container.

These imaginary containers can cause a lot of trouble! We love fighting about them. We even have a word for container-based fighting. We call it war. It’s not too disagreeable, then, to suggest that the way we talk about things represents how we think about things, and that how we think about things affects how we behave.

Let’s have a think about that phrase HE-in-FE again (or college HE and other terms of distinction). We have established that HE-in-FE is a container metaphor. However, it is inflected by two other human concepts that we encode as progress and value.

In broad terms, we tend to think of time as an arrow of progress (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Time moves horizontally from birth to death. Progress moves diagonally from the bottom-up: that is, we move incrementally across the arrow of time where each success increases the trajectory of our progress. In contrast to the horizontal progression of time, value has a vertical hierarchy where high is good and low is bad (Johnson, 1990). We claim to feel down, or have our mood lifted (up). We might hear idioms such as ‘going up in the world’ or ‘falling from a great height’. These conceptual geometries of value are explicit in our language: we have numerical sequences like primary, secondary, or tertiary; assessment is graded via alpha-numeric scales; we also have vertical sequences like lower, upper, and higher. Such geometries underpin our ways of thinking (see Chilton, 2014).

However, when we bring these two geometries together (the arrow of time/progress, and the scale of value), we find that they don’t fit too well. This is because they function on different spatial planes. Progressing further takes us across a horizontal plane. Moving higher takes us up a vertical plane.

From this perspective, higher (education) exists on a different plane to further (education). With HE-in-FE, progress and value intersect. This is where the container metaphor becomes important. The higher-in-further concept implies an extension of a horizontal plane that is contained. HE-in-FE is a progression from the standard limit of FE (6th form, for example) but is not conceptualised as an increase in the value scale where higher-is-better. In accordance with the value scale, HE-in-FE is valued lower than HE. Why else would there be a distinct set of terms?

I have worked in HE for the past 10 years, at both large universities and at HE institutions that so happen to be located in the same physical space as an FE college. I have delivered the same lectures and seminars in both spaces. My students have studied the same topics, used the same materials, and participated in the same discussions. The only difference I can recall relates to contracts and expectations, especially when it comes to research. One space sees it as an essential activity; the other sees it as a useful addition. One space aims to strike a balance between research and teaching; the other aims to maximise teaching at the cost of research. It is here that we find a gross inequality. The divisiveness of the language mirrors the divisiveness of the practice (see Fairclough, 2010).

Access to HE in spaces accessible to all is a necessary social justice. If we are to devalue those spaces, or make distinctions between them based on access, privilege and location, we only undermine their emancipatory potential. This starts with how we discuss and frame these spaces. In practice, this is managed by the different levels of attention we give to those who seek out higher learning. If the nominal HE-in-FE is framed as an underclass to HE, where students are not expected to receive research-led provision, we only deny the most vulnerable, the most disaffected, and the most deprived, of the opportunities that they need and rightly deserve. We place them in a different container.

Humans learn. We love it. Some of us like a broad sample. Some of us like to model the exact velocity of a worm swirling through a hurricane. It’s all wonderful. Let’s encompass it all. Let’s work towards living in a world where, to quote the late Mr. Lennon, we really are all ‘clever and classless and free’. Let’s work towards a world where our language doesn’t promote artificial division, where one sector isn’t raised above another by virtue of an abstract noun phrase. More importantly, let’s work towards a world where we don’t salt the earth: where we don’t find it acceptable to allow one group of students to benefit from cutting-edge research, while the other makes do with the scraps from that higher table. This is a structural inequality so refined that it is barely discussed. Framing and legitimating the practice with abstract terms like HE-in-FE does not remedy the inequality.

Addressing inequality begin when we learn to mind our language. It really matters. It matters for gender, it matters for race, it matters for all forms of discrimination. We need to recognise that it matters for class-based discrimination, too. Like the conceptual geometries I outline above, it is all a fiction of our own invention. We are all responsible. Let’s be responsible for change instead. Let’s start by minding our language.

Terry McDonough is a lecturer in linguistics at the University Centre at Blackburn College (UCBC), Editor-in-Chief of the scholarly journal, PRISM, and a PhD student at Lancaster University. He doesn’t care which container he belongs in.


Chilton, P. A. (2014). Language, space and mind: the conceptual geometry of linguistic meaning. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, V., & Green, M. (2009). Cognitive linguistics: an introduction (Repr). Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press.

Fairclough, N. (2010). Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language (2nd Edition). London: Routledge.

Johnson, M. (1990). The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis Of Meaning, Imagination and Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Ungerer, P. F., & Schmid, D. H.-J. (1996). An Introduction to Cognitive Linguistics. London ; New York: Longman.