Last month I joined a group of colleagues from other UK HE and FE institutions (leavened with a smattering of folk from other parts of the world) to find out how the US system is coping with globalisation. We visited Chicago, Illinois and Michigan and what an eye opener of a trip it was.

There we were in the host city of the University of Chicago - alma mater of the Chicago school of neo-liberal free market economics. This was the birthplace of the ideas that took the world by storm during the 1970s and 1980s. This is where the notion that competition, the tenets of Say's law, the freeing of markets from the dead hand of state bureaucracy had been organised into an intellectually coherent creed. This is the school of economics whose ideas have shaped successive UK administrations from Margaret Thatcher's through to today's coalition.

So I was fully expecting to see an FE and HE system built on competition alone. But what I found in Chicago, particularly among the Community Colleges, was the opposite of that expectation. Sure, the institutions are competing for students. Each Community College has a range of business advisory bodies attached to areas of the curriculum. And there is also a rich cornucopia of different types of educational institution delivering a wide range of courses to suit all tastes from publicly funded bodies to private universities. However the sheer degree of collaboration between institutions at the city and state level was what took my breath away.

This collaboration was all about putting the students' and employers' needs first. Chicago has a long established organising authority City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) that is responsible for coordinating curriculum innovation and development in order to meet the needs of the city's high growth industries. Their new initiative described as Reinvention has been about driving out data and analysis on where the jobs are likely to come from over the next ten years and then determining which College in the group will develop which specialism to serve that demand. The Chicago colleges have helped fund this operation themselves but it has also had a tranche of money and support from the City and state of Illinois and the active partnership of relevant businesses both large and small.

This is a form of partnership and planning the UK can only dream of. The US is clear that to serve the demand side properly then partnership, institutional collaboration and smart clustering are all parts of the necessary infrastructure. It is not enough just to simply create new institutions. What is required is organisation of the supply side so that it really becomes an interested partner for the demand side in a way the demand side can easily understand.
Competition is for students. Getting the right student onto the right course for them is the over-riding principle as it should be, but isn't, here. So in Chicago each of the seven community colleges in the city is developing a specialism to match the six or seven sectors offering the most growth over the next ten years. Sectors such as logistics or high tech manufacturing or the creative industries have a clear set of options about where to go to find the right courses and skilled people.

As importantly people too can find the right course for them at the right institution. This hasn't been an uncontroversial reform. Community Colleges, like FE Colleges, are seen as predominantly local institutions serving local needs. This form of specialisation will mean more people needing to travel across the city to attend the right college for their field of study. However Chicago believe this change will help drive higher graduation rates; better skills delivery to employers and higher overall growth.

Much of this we can emulate in the UK by using our new Local Enterprise Partnerships to create that enabling framework. But will the supply side play ball? Will all those independent bodies at secondary school level want to integrate and cede some autonomy over what they offer in order to develop the relevant pathways for students through secondary school on to College and University? Or could the manic innovation in institutional form mask a fundamental failure in overall design? Only time will tell.

Nick Isles is deputy principal of Milton Keynes College – follow him on Twitter at @dpmkcollege

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