From education to employment

Compete or collaborate? Finding the right blend

Two of the biggest challenges facing FE colleges are the forthcoming apprenticeship levy and the area review process.  The levy will intensify competition, whereas the area reviews demand collaboration.  To be successful, colleges need to find the right blend – knowing when to compete, when to collaborate, and how to excel at both.

At last November’s AoC conference, Nick Boles pointed out that the majority of apprenticeship funding goes to private providers and asked “why on earth are you letting these guys nick your lunch?”. He then challenged the FE sector to increase its share of the apprenticeship market to two thirds.

That is a commendable ambition. But what, if anything, about the levy proposals and the other apprenticeship reforms makes that ambition a likely outcome? 

A quick SWOT analysis would identify several weaknesses and threats. Private providers are starting out in the lead and will be just as determined as anyone else to expand their market share.  Additionally, the introduction of the levy may attract new entrants to the apprenticeship market.

Employer expectations around price, quality and customisation will be higher, once they are spending what they will regard as their money. There is widespread sub-contracting of apprenticeship delivery by colleges, and once apprenticeship funding flows directly from the employer to their chosen training provider, employers will need a very good reason to pay a management fee to an intermediary.  

All this while colleges are having to deal with the sheer amount of change that will be going on in 2017, including the implementation of area review decisions.

Undoubtedly, colleges will bring a lot of strengths to the new apprenticeship market too, such as track record, size, training facilities and existing relationships with employers.  Some colleges have also been setting up, or are considering, new vehicles that will specialise in apprenticeship delivery

Ultimately, however, it is capabilities and leadership that will make the difference.  In the case of apprenticeships, we can expect competition to be fierce.  So those capabilities will need to include the ability to develop and execute an ambitious strategy for the apprenticeship market; a sales function that is better than the competition’s; hard-headed supply chain management; and the ability to align the whole organisation around meeting employers’ requirements.

Area reviews, on the other hand, require a different mindset.  BIS guidance published in March sets out 18 principles that participants in the area review process should follow – which is a lot of principles.  They include “a strong commitment to collaboration and relationship building” and “an open-mindedness to change for the greater good”.

During the formal review process and the hard work of implementation that comes afterwards, board members and senior managers need to behave in ways that enable collaboration.  Careful design of the consultation, analysis and conversations that make up the review can help with that.  Implementation of the review’s decisions needs to be led and project managed in a way that knits together all of the partners.

Most importantly, the area review and the change that follows is an opportunity.  It is not just a technical exercise in financial and organisational restructuring – although those aspects need to be very tightly managed.  It is also an opportunity to create a shared vision and plan for a regional FE system that works better for learners and employers.  Turning that vision into reality will require colleges to deepen existing partnerships and develop new ones.

For leaders in FE, therefore, the challenge is knowing when to compete, when to collaborate, and how to lead in a way that enables the organisation to excel at both.

Stephen Martin

PublicCo is a consultancy practice, specialising in public services in the areas of skills, employment and justice.  We are a joint venture with the Learning and Work Institute (formerly NIACE and the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion).  For further information about how we can help FE colleges with apprenticeship reforms or area reviews, email us at [email protected] or [email protected]

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