Martin Doel, FETL Professor of Leadership in FE and Skills, University College London, Institute of Education

#FutureofFE Dilemma No 2: National or Local

In the first of the articles leading up to my forthcoming lecture The Future of Further Education, I argued that future predictions were almost bound to fail, particularly if they were overly specific.

In the second of my articles, I introduced a series of dilemmas that I thought that the Sector would face in the decade ahead and that I intended to address in the lecture. The first of these apparent dilemmas "Collaboration or Competition?" concerned the tension between the need for colleges and other FE providers to collaborate in a marketized system where competition was the primary mode of behaviour incentivised by policy and performance regimes.

In common with the remaining dilemmas, I argued that the tension between competition and collaboration was, in fact, a constantly present dualism that could be attenuated through a range of actions and behaviours. In effect, a synthesis between the two poles needed to be created; hence the sub-title of the lecture Dilemmas; Dualisms and Dialectics.

National or Local?

Each of the supposed dilemmas that I will address are interrelated and so it is with the second – National or Local? One of the strongest coalescing factors that could enable collaboration between providers would be a focus on meeting local needs.

Most, if not all, FE Colleges see responsiveness to local needs as being central to their raison d’etre; the same is true of local authority providers and many independent training providers. In this respect, these providers differ from universities in the centrality of meeting place-based needs in their purpose.

Though the recently convened Commission on the Civic University has reaffirmed the importance of universities in taking account of their impact on the communities in which they are located, I would argue that they remain primarily of their place and not for their place. The latter designation better describes a college or provider, whose curriculum offer is shaped by local labour market intelligence and the demands of students and businesses in the immediate vicinity.  

This focus of being for a place feels very much in tune with the direction of travel in current policy supporting devolution and aiming to ‘level-up’ differences in and between regions. With the devolution of elements of the skills budget to Combined Authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships, the establishment of Skills Advisory Panels and a focus on rejuvenating technical education, FE colleges and locally-oriented providers would seem to be in a ‘sweet spot.’

In which case, where is the dilemma?

The dilemma exists, I think, in at least three dimensions:

1. Oversimplified localisation

The first two of these dimensions were recently exemplified in Amanda Spielman’s comments in launching this year’s Annual Ofsted Report and the response of the Sector to these comments.

In launching the report she pointed to the mismatch between the courses that some colleges offered, particularly in arts and media studies, and the needs of local employment. In response, many voices in the Sector pointed to the value that these courses provided in engaging, or re-engaging students and their wider educative value in terms of interpersonal and other transferable skills.

Beyond the argument and counter argument, I think the first dilemma that this exchange points to is the risk that a simplistic view of place-based needs translates into ‘place as destiny.’ If the curriculum offer in further education colleges is dictated solely by local labour market needs, the future of young people, in particular, will continue to be unduly shaped by where they live.

The existence of national qualifications and standards mitigates against this possibility to some extent by allowing students to look for jobs beyond their local area. But a curricula offer that is slavishly responsive to the existing local labour market could disadvantage to students who follow technical and professional courses.

A student who wishes to become an engineer and study for a T level in rural Lincolnshire, may not be afforded that opportunity, whilst a student following an academic course would continue to have access to the full range of options and to be able to follow his or her interests and passions.

2. Balancing student demand with employer needs

This example serves also to reveal a second tension. In a society that is voluntarist and not authoritarian, and where students and their parents continue to have a choice in how, where and what they study, colleges and providers cannot simply reflect immediate local labour market demands.

Hence, if a college close to a major industrial development like the nuclear power station at Hinckley Point could justifiably be criticised if it did not offer any courses related to the nuclear industry, it would fail students whose interests and talents lie elsewhere if it did not have a wider offer. In our system, ultimately it is students who have demands and employers who have needs at both the local and national levels.

3. Congested geography

A third dilemma in England, or perhaps on this occasion more simply a specific challenge, is the congested geography and the mismatch between administrative boundaries and economic behaviour.

The density of population in urban areas means that local economic communities overlap. In the North West, for instance, people travel into an out of the Combined Authorities of Manchester and Merseyside from contiguous areas to work, a phenomenon that is likely to increase if transport links are eventually improved.

In assessing which labour market it serves, a college or other provider may sensibly look further afield than its immediate geography, particularly if it has specialist facilities and capabilities. Indeed, this focus may be national and sectoral, especially in the cases of independent training providers.

Where is the synthesis then, between national and local in further education?

The last example provides one avenue of investigation – the balance between generalist and specialist provision which I will explore in my next article. But so far as the first two dilemmas are concerned, we need a much more sophisticated understanding of what it is for an institution or provider to be for a place; a conception that takes account of the desires of students and their stages of development.

Presuming that those who follow a technical and professional pathway must commit to a single occupation related to local labour need at age 16 seems to confound common sense when they are quite likely to be working into their seventies. And even when older, an adult returning to learning will often need to be re-engage in a general way to re-stimulate a love of learning and a feeling of achievement not limited to the immediate and local labour market.

Martin Doel, FETL Professor of Leadership in FE and Skills, University College London, Institute of Education

Clearly this is a complex issue that I have only touched upon here, but should these words have piqued your interest, places at the lecture lecture (20 Feb) bookings can be made here.

Find out more about the ideas behind Martin's lecture by reading his #FutureofFE mini-series here:

  1. Defining the Future of Further Education
  2. Collaboration or Competition?
  3. National or Local?

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