Niamh Corcoran, Policy Adviser, North East England Chamber of Commerce

How colleges in the North East can continue to support our communities and employers in the future 

The Independent Commission on the College of the Future’s England report outlines a comprehensive and ambitious vision for the role of the college in the future skills and employment landscape.

The report rightly highlights the important role colleges play in our regional community, through supporting people to reach their full potential, as well as helping to sustain a pipeline of talent that our businesses need to succeed.

For too long, however, the system has been limited by underfunding and a lack of strategic coordination between post-16 skills policy and industrial priorities. As the report rightly states, colleges have succeeded for the North East community despite the system, not because of it.

Therefore, the North East England Chamber of Commerce welcomes many of the Commission’s recommendations for what a new and improved college system could look like.

Statutory entitlement to life-long education

The report is right to call for the introduction of a statutory entitlement to life-long education, undergirded by much stronger financial support for learners.

With the Covid-19 crisis causing rising regional unemployment, whilst also accelerating longer-term structural economic shifts towards increased automation and digitisation, upskilling and retraining will be more important than ever. It is essential that the system is able to support people into work and create a workforce fit for the economy of the future.

Closer collaboration between the business and education community

The Chamber also supports the report’s wider call for closer collaboration between the business and education community and, where possible and complementary, the creation of sector-focused employer hubs in key regional sectors, like digital and health and social care.

If the North East is to establish a skills landscape which effectively meets business and industry needs, the voice of employers must be heard at every stage of strategic decision making.

A clear 10-year plan for post-16 education and skills strategy

Finally, the Commission has rightly called for a longer term and more coherent post-16 education and skills strategy, with the roles of schools, colleges, universities and independent learning providers clearly defined.

The regularly changing and often patchwork approach to skills policy over recent years has left the system confused and hard to navigate. Therefore, outlining a clear 10-year plan with sustained FE funding agreements will allow post-16 skills providers to plan more effectively.

Regional skills needs

In outlining this national strategy, however, it is important that Government does not centralise decision making power or undermine the important role independent learning providers play in our local skills system. Our region and skills actors must continue to have the power to shift course whenever necessary to meet regional skills needs.

Colleges are an important part of the wider education ecosystem, and alongside Independent Learning Providers, schools and universities, play a key role in supporting school-leavers into their first jobs, helping redundant workers back into the workplace or into new careers and ensuring that the skills needs of our rapidly changing economy are met.

However, successive years of disinvestment have left the college system in need of increased financial support and improved operational structures. This report is an excellent starting point towards rectifying these issues and rejuvenating the system.

Niamh Corcoran, Policy Adviser, North East England Chamber of Commerce

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