Stuart Wesselby, principal of Tresham College of Further and Higher Education, discusses the effects of the funding squeeze on the FE sector and the need to respond to reduced public sector funding streams with private sector thinking.
In an ideal world, further education is all about excellent teaching standards and innovative approaches to learning to prepare learners for the workplace, career development or higher study.
In the real world, delivering all that not only takes inspirational teaching staff, it also requires sufficient budgets to maintain buildings, purchase resources, pay staff, develop courses and promote the college to potential students and commercial partners.
And, as anyone who works in FE is painfully aware, budgets are getting tighter and tighter year on year.
A recent report from the AOC (Association of Colleges) and a commissioned report from Ewart Keep at Oxford University's Department of Education agree that the outlook is bleak when it comes to both SFA (Skills Funding Agency) and EFA (Education Funding Agency) FE budgets.
It's a situation of which the FE sector has been aware for some time, with many colleges cutting their operational overheads to the bone to maintain teaching standards and resources.
That approach is untenable. Instead of shaving off costs here and there simply to maintain current service levels to students and partners, the FE colleges need to find new ways to grow out of decline. Colleges must adapt to the demands of the contemporary commercial landscape and create a more compelling proposition that attracts students, partners and business opportunities, both to support both future demand and generate future funding streams.
The problem is, doing that in practice is not as easy as pointing out the commercial imperatives on paper. Operational changes of direction and plotting a new strategic course is as cumbersome for an FE college as it is for an oil tanker.
What's more, the issue is, by its nature, somewhat chicken and egg: to invest in change requires the budget to implement a new strategy but until change is achieved, additional budget is – to extend the metaphor – as rare as hen's teeth!
So...what's the answer? Some colleges have successfully made significant changes to their funding models and operational structures but few can claim to be part of that trend. All need to find a way to follow suit however: the need to evolve has become mission critical and that begins by growing income from non-Government sources.
In FE, however, that type of business development process does not come naturally. Sales is not part of our DNA and most of the people running FE colleges have come from an academic, rather than a business, background. While FE Principals may generally be described as intelligent and resourceful, the traditional route of rising through the ranks as lecturer then Head of Department to Vice Principal and finally Principal brings with it no substantial opportunity for commercial experience.
It's a picture of the FE landscape that I have examined carefully in relation to Tresham and my vision for the college's future 10 years from now. For me, it's clear: if we are to thrive rather than merely survive we must engage with commercialism and target growth.
At Tresham, we are already implementing a future-focused strategic plan and at its heart is a need to employ commercially experienced staff who can contribute to efficiency and innovation. They must not only be creative, out of the box thinkers that can bring new ideas to the table, they must also be financially acute managers that can generate more money for the pot.
It won't be easy attracting those high calibre, commercially aware individuals to the sector, but we have to find a way to encourage them to embrace the challenges of working in FE. Rather than simply training the entrepreneurs of the future, the FE sector needs to make entrepreneurialism fundamental to our growth strategy. Bringing in those skills is the only way to ensure that FE colleges are run efficiently as the multi-million-pound organisations they are, ending our debilitating reliance on Government-based funding.
Stuart Wesselby is principal of Tresham College of Further and Higher Education