The FE sector is currently facing huge challenges. Savage cuts to the Adult Skills Budget and a major review of post-16 education and training which will almost inevitably result in a significant reduction in the numbers of sixth form colleges. Moreover, I suspect that the revenue generated by the proposed Apprenticeship levy will not act as a lifeline. The large companies who will pay and at the same time, benefit from the levy, will invariably either run the programmes internally or use Private Training Providers (PTPs) rather than their local FE college.
So how can the sector rise to this challenge? Until now, the main response appears to have been through inter-college mergers and more recently through mergers between colleges and PTPs. But that strategy is often adopted as a last resort and there have been a number of high-profile examples of where it has gone horribly wrong, often as a result of major culture clashes.
However, there may be another solution – the formation of collaborative partnerships. Over the years, the word "collaboration" has often had a bad press, not least during the Second World War when the words "...with the enemy" were almost invariably added at the end. Yet 70 years on, it's almost impossible to pick up a management, education or HR journal or blog and find a sentence where collaboration does not appear.
So what have we got here, another buzzword which will shortly pass into the great archives of management-speak (alongside "Talent Management" and "Human Capital" etc) or are we talking about a new way of learning and working which could genuinely have a huge long-term impact on both the commercial and educational sectors?
I tend to take the latter view. Some years ago I attended a course at the London Business School and vividly remember a case study about how Komatsu, the Japanese construction equipment company, had decided to take on Caterpillar and try to achieve market domination. Their Mission Statement was very simple – "Encircle C". In other words, put an iron grip around Caterpillar and then squeeze the life out of them. Nowadays, it's much more likely that the two companies would be talking to each other to discuss how they could add value to both businesses by working together in key areas. The word "Co-opetition" is already sneaking into use to describe this new business model.
I believe that the FE sector could benefit hugely from "Co-opetition" and with that in mind I was very pleased to see that the AELP has established a database of organisations proposing to bid for the forthcoming ESIF tenders. Its' purpose is to make it easier for providers to forge partnerships. Because of the huge sums involved, regional tenders will almost invariably be won by consortia and that means a collaborative approach is an essential component of successful bids.
There will be those that argue that collaboration between providers already exists via the SFA sub-contracting arrangements. But far too often this is a master-servant relationship with small sub-contracting providers being ripped off with huge "admin" charges and getting very little in return. I am talking about a very different relationship where equal partners seek to pool their resources, improve efficiency and add value to their respective organisations.
Since joining this database, I have had very positive conversations with many different providers in the sector and what has become clear that the ESIF tender process notwithstanding, there may be numerous opportunities to "co-opetite" with companies who in the past might have been considered as competitors.
Co-opetition alone will not solve all the problems facing the sector but it may just provide the spark which ignites some new thinking and a way through the current crisis.
Roger Francis is a director with Creative Learning Partners, a specialist vocational training company focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills