Nigel Rayner is director of Capita further and higher education.

Nigel Rayner explores some of the key issues that a recent survey has indicated will be dominating the thoughts of college principals this year.

As the dust settled on the government's Autumn spending review, a clearer picture began to emerge of what 2016 and beyond might look like for the further education sector.

For some institutions the Chancellor's announcements brought clarity, but for others, the ongoing area reviews continue to give rise to uncertainty around the future shape of their FE and skills provision.

With the post-16 reforms as a backdrop, what is it that college principals are thinking about as the new year gets underway?

Challenge or opportunity?

Research published over the summer by the National Audit Office put the health of the FE sector in the spotlight and suggested that a growing number of institutions were experiencing financial strain.

In the wake of this, it was interesting to see the results of a survey of college principals undertaken more recently for Capita. In it, 80% of respondents said that funding cuts and financial stability were the biggest challenges their institutions currently faced.

Perhaps not surprisingly, 63% indicated that it was the area reviews that concerned them the most – principals who responded to the survey spoke of their concern around the future shape of the sector and that of their own colleges.

However, while uncertainty may remain around the FE landscape, the survey also suggests that some college leaders are seeing positive developments. When questioned, 56% of principals said that the area reviews offered the greatest opportunity for their colleges.

Our survey results indicate that in many institutions, thoughts are already turning to how opportunities relating to the changing FE sector might be harnessed and what adjustments need to be made to their offering in order to help them meet local requirements and respond effectively to the shifting FE tide.

Looking at apprenticeships

With changes to apprenticeship funding being introduced from March 2017, many principals are keen for their colleges to become much more effective at winning a share of the apprenticeships market.

The survey garnered the different views of principals relating to apprenticeships and 44% of those who responded already saw them as a key opportunity for the growth of their institutions.

Some of the college leaders questioned spoke of the successful apprenticeship programmes they already had in place. These included institutions that had acquired private apprenticeship providers. Others were collaborating on commercial opportunities or working well with Local Enterprise Partnerships too. Principals spoke of how crucial it was to get all the components right on apprenticeships – such as branding, the use of social media in marketing their offering and quality of delivery for students.

A small group of senior leaders said they recognised the need for an even closer relationship with companies taking on aspects of their training and recruitment by providing them with a flow of well trained staff.

The growth of HE in FE

Delivering effective higher education provision was another theme explored by the survey and 30% of respondents saw this as a key growth area for the sector.
Building good partner links with local Higher Education Institutions as well as industry was viewed as a priority. Those institutions with experience in offering higher qualifications and skills to their students had forged strong partnerships with HE providers and industry and recognised the value of delivering local provision in niche areas.

Some principals also highlighted the advantages of forging similar links internationally.

Firm foundations for the future

The requirement for knowledge and insight was another common theme for the principals questioned in the survey.

When asked what help was needed to ensure they could realise the opportunities available in a post-reform FE sector, high on the wish list for principals was quality data on local labour markets – 56% of respondents said this would be of value.

Half of the senior leaders also highlighted mutualised systems as key to future success and 30% said highly skilled and professional support would be needed to help implement the outcomes of area reviews.

In these changing times, the results of the survey uncover some of the issues that are currently concerning many college leaders. While it seems a mixed view exists among principals on whether the reforms offer their institutions more of a challenge or an opportunity, few would dispute that the desired result is that students benefit from the highest standards of provision, delivered by a sector that has built firm foundations for future success.

Nigel Rayner is director of Capita further and higher education.

Follow Nigel on Twitter at @Nigel_Rayner

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