Lesley Giles, Independent Commissioner and Director of Work Advance

The conversation about the future of colleges is alive and kicking in the UK, and with the world changing at pace, it comes as no surprise that it is a hot topic across the globe. At a time of heated debates around Brexit, it is very welcome that political developments do not inhibit the UK’s wider ability in areas such as education, to optimise the value of building long term collaborations with its international partners so that mutual insights and lessons can be shared to enhance local practices.

How can the college of the future meet long term global trends like the changing nature of work, globalisation and climate change, whilst also responding to immediate challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic?

These are important questions. That’s why I was delighted to join senior policy makers and practitioners involved in skills and technical education, from over 20 countries at a recent British Council organised event. Its goal was to reflect on developments in the global economy and consider their implications for the future role of colleges in different national skills systems. The community provided a great chance to share learning between the UK and other countries across a highly experienced skills network.

The UK’s Independent Commission on the College of the Future has been working over the last year to recognise and celebrate the vital role of colleges. They must continue to be anchor institutions at the heart of local economies, empowering people through ongoing education and skills development during their careers, and supporting thriving local businesses and communities.

The feedback from the work of the UK Commission – of which I am a member – was complemented by detailed insights from Dr Pham Vu Quoc Binh - a skills policy-maker in Vietnam - who reflected on the work in his country to support the modernisation of colleges. The discussion also drew on the wider expertise and interests across the globe not only from Europe but further afield, stretching from Latin America, to South Africa and Asia.

In the context of increasing change and uncertainty in the global economy, the Commission has been considering what we need from colleges from 2030 and beyond and what steps might be taken to get there. This helped to shape a more global debate on the contribution of colleges in future elsewhere and the actions needed to support them, drawing on international best practice.

The event revealed that there is an increasing realisation in different countries that the future of work is becoming more and more turbulent, and uncertain, changing the nature of employment and skills requirements and that this is placing an increasing importance on the role of education. As such, there was a growing recognition that if skills systems are to retain their currency and relevance, this requires all education providers, including colleges, to adapt to meet these changing needs and to help people be resilient and retain their foothold in work.

The dynamism of the labour market is being driven by a whole host of factors, not only including economic shocks like the world financial crisis in 2008, and now the Covid-19 pandemic, but long running forces for change and megatrends such as rapid rates of globalisation, technological advances and climate change. Fundamentally, this means colleges, as well as preparing people to enter the world of work, also need to enable retraining, upskilling and more flexible skills development throughout a lifetime, thus supporting lifelong learning, career progression and social engagement. This in turn supports more productive businesses and vibrant communities.

But, such developments are easier said than done and it was acknowledged that being responsive to constantly changing labour market needs is a challenge for different education institutions. Skills systems are complex, with information asymmetries, and providers can be inhibited in improving skills programmes and curricula by limiting mandates, regulatory and funding frameworks and conflicting stakeholder interests.

A lively discussion followed building on the recommendations of the Commission. There were many core areas of alignment felt to be important to enabling colleges in any future national skills strategies. For instance, the discussion:

  • acknowledged the need for a whole-system, co-ordinated response, which recognised and supported an ambitious role for colleges in future, alongside wider skills providers such as schools, colleges and private training providers;
  • highlighted the need to reinvigorate individual demand for learning regardless of age, by raising the statutory individual entitlement to training and offering more flexible, financial support;
  • outlined the importance of strengthening the local delivery infrastructure and local partnerships as a basis to better anticipate, assess and respond to local needs over the long term;
  • underlined the vital need for strong employer engagement; and
  • called for better governance and regulatory structures that provide the space for different colleges (and providers) to continuously review and adapt their skills offer and delivery methods to ensure the quality, agility and relevance of their programmes to evolving needs.

The event highlighted an exciting future agenda for change, which colleges can, and are, actively shaping, drawing on their wealth of community expertise, alongside wider skills partners. Now the Independent Commission has reported in the UK, the Four Nations College Alliance can work to ensure colleges continue to participate in skills and employment reforms in the UK over the long term.

Lesley Giles, Independent Commissioner and Director of Work Advance

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