When I joined the #CollegeoftheFuture Commission last year, our society and economy faced a number of major challenges including rapid demographic change, technological revolution and social inequality.
Society has since been rocked by the pandemic, making the need to address these issues all the more urgent.
We must now double our efforts to protect young people’s future prospects and prevent long-term economic scarring from unemployment
Colleges are absolutely central to this agenda.
Over recent months, institutions in every corner of the country have gone above and beyond to ensure positive learning and training outcomes in difficult circumstances, supporting digital access for learners and transitioning to new flexible models of delivery.
Many have also stepped up their engagement with local university and business partners, creating clear pathways for young people to access opportunities for employment or continued education and training.
However, the role of colleges shouldn’t be limited to only facilitating young people’s progression.
Colleges should be empowered to take a leading role when it comes to supporting more adults into training opportunities that allow them to learn new skills. This will be essential to minimise the human cost of unemployment, estimated by the Bank of England to hit between 11-15% by the end of the year.
The Prime Minister’s commitment to making a lifetime skills guarantee a foundation for economic recovery in England was a great step towards this. In addition to significantly reduced cashflow and huge fall in demand, many employers are currently also facing skills shortages.
Digital, low carbon and healthcare industries in particular have the potential to be drivers of jobs growth across the country. But fast and smart policy is required to support individuals of all ages to develop the skills needed to access these opportunities.
Colleges are well positioned to support this agenda
Colleges are well positioned to support this agenda and draw upon their strengths as local anchor institutions to meet the needs of businesses, communities, and individuals. Collaboration with other regional actors will be important to ensure efforts and resources are targeted where they are most needed. This will be essential to helping the UK truly build back better and create a fairer, more inclusive future economy.
Even before the crisis, there was strong evidence to suggest that boosting uptake of adult training would be key to prevent growing unemployment and inequality. Our recent report, Learning for Life, shows that nine in ten workers will require some form of reskilling by 2030.
That’s because although automation will bring new opportunities for career development, it will displace existing practices in many industries. As the nature of work rapidly evolves, lifelong learning will become increasingly important for workers and employers to keep pace.
Colleges, universities, and independent training providers must be trusted and empowered to work with business to co-design and deliver the flexible and modular training solutions employers will increasingly require.
This can help unlock greater business investment in workplaces, allowing the UK economy to seize the opportunities created by technological innovation and avoid an unjust transition to new ways of working.
Chronic underfunding of the sector must end
For colleges to adequately address skills gaps, both now and in the future, chronic underfunding of the sector must end. With greater resources at their disposal, colleges would be able to take a more long-term approach to education provision, aligned with broader socio-economic considerations, such as labour market needs.
This would also allow them to enhance the services they provide to employers and ensure the high-quality education and training they offer help to make our economy resilient and competitive.
Redressing the funding imbalances between higher and further education and investing in colleges alongside our higher education institutions would also allow them to step into their increasingly instrumental role in fostering healthy, connected and cohesive communities, tackling entrenched inequality and supporting individuals with the biggest learning and reskilling needs.
Creating the College of the Future won’t require us to start from scratch. But it will mean building on the strengths our colleges already have - driving social mobility and delivering the skills our employers need.
Matthew Fell is the CBI’s Chief UK Policy Director