In any conversation about further education (FE) and skills, it's impossible to escape the topic we British so often like to avoid: money.
What's surely the rhetoric of our time – to do more with less – is set to continue, as further cuts are imposed on the sector. Colleges are expected to find new efficiencies at the same time as expectations around quality of provision are on the up, placing already stretched budgets at breaking point.
Understandably, the issue is high on the government's agenda.
Cost efficiencies are a major consideration in area reviews, while the declining financial health of FE is at the heart of a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) inquiry into its financial sustainability, following a report from the National Audit Office that found nearly half of colleges (110) to be in deficient, and 70 expected to be rated as 'financially inadequate' by the end of 2015/16.
Although the picture may appear bleak, a shining light does exist, in digital technologies.
At the PAC evidence session I attended last week, three colleges presented their case: Central Sussex College, Hackney Community College and Heart of Worcestershire College. Each of the college principals set out the challenges they're facing in relation to cost cutting and quality, and the proactive actions they're taking in response.
All cited investment in technology and online learning as critical to improving organisational sustainability. Although this obviously requires up-front costs, it was felt that doing so puts the college in a better position in the long term, enabling enhanced teaching and learning through blended and online learning programmes, while being cost-effective.
They were also clear that buying in state-of-the-art technology is only going to get you so far: if teachers and staff don't know how to use it to best effect, then the impact will be minimised. A direct quote from Stuart Laverick, Heart of Worcestershire College's principal, said, "If you use technology right, affordability can be more manageable."
Achieving this balance between cost and quality is no mean feat. We want to help our customers to do so.
Jisc is developing a number of services that should support colleges in making the most of their technology so that they can deliver financial efficiencies and enhanced learning practices:
Digital leaders programme
Effective technology implementation and use needs to start at the top. Naturally, development and support of digital skills for educational leaders is a recurring theme in conversations with colleges and universities.
Our digital leaders programme is a core strand of the building digital capability co-design challenge, and has been specifically designed to equip aspiring leaders with the skills they need to leverage digital opportunities.
We're currently running a pilot course for FE and skills and higher education that will support delegates to develop proficiencies in digital leadership and help them secure a successful future through technology. The first events in October received positive feedback from attendees and we'll be using the findings from the pilot to inform future activity and resources.
FE and skills online CPD service
In addition to leaders having digital skills to inform their strategies, practitioners too need to share and build digital knowledge about the optimal use of technology resources.
With there currently being little incentive or opportunity to do so, we are responding by building an online continuing professional development (CPD) service for FE and skills. This service will provide practitioners with access to high quality CPD resources that will help them acquire new digital skills and give them the confidence to put them into practice both in and out of the classroom.
Ultimately this should help colleges achieve their ambitions of reduced costs whilst also increasing and improving online and blended learning, and meeting the requirements of the FELTAG agenda in England.
We're currently looking for people to take part in the pilot.
With the amount of funding a college receives intrinsically linked with its ability to attract and retain students, student drop-outs take on a new significance.
Being able to stage an intervention, prevent a vulnerable student from dropping out and help them gain the skills and qualifications for employment is the objective. The national learning analytics service we are piloting with colleges and universities should go a long way in addressing this challenge.
Every time a student interacts with learning systems they leave digital fingerprints. The sophisticated analytics engine we're developing will identify students who aren't attending, engaging with online learning or keeping up with assignments, allowing for a quick intervention. Once established, colleges should be able to use this data to better manage and personalise their learning programmes, enabling them to remain relevant and competitive.
For colleges interested in finding out more about each of these projects, please speak with your account manager.
Sue Attewell is head of change for FE and skills at Jisc