The status of colleges has never been greater. Colleges will be critical to a range of important government policy areas, from helping economic recovery to "Levelling Up" across the country. Collab Group represents some of the largest urban and regional college groups across the UK, and they need to be “front and centre” of delivering skills to help us Build Back Better.
Collab Group Principals met recently to discuss the Skills for Jobs Plan and how it can provide a mechanism for regional colleges to emerge as "Skills Solution Powerhouses" a national network of colleges working in collaboration with employers to solve skills challenges. The announcement of the Skills for Jobs Plan set out some ideas for how we can achieve this, but there is still a way to go to see these ambitions fully realised.
Now the dust has settled on the Skills for Jobs Plan, and the Chancellor has announced a new budget, it is worth considering how colleges best conceptualise their role in our national recovery and post COVID world. The COVID-19 crisis has created unique challenges for colleges but also for the broader economy.
The budget (4 Mar) set out a range of new spending commitment, including extending the Job Retention Scheme until September. However, aside from a commitment to double apprenticeship incentives, it was light in new spending on skills.
When the White Paper was released, it was largely welcomed by the skills sector. Proposals to embed prior accreditation into qualification pathways, invest in traineeships and apprenticeships and recruit more industry experts into the further education sector are all good signs. The paper outlines a clear strategic direction for colleges to move beyond a system of fragmentation to one of coherence and integration.
Defining an identity for colleges as the new polytechnics
However, a major opportunity was missed by the Government to use the White Paper to define an identity for colleges rather than just being different from schools and universities. So, Collab Group member colleges have decided to address this.
Going forward, we see large regional college groups as the lead deliverers of L3/4/5 higher technical education — they are the new polytechnics. Large multi-campus regional colleges are best placed to deliver higher technical education and achieve the Government's ambitions to deliver and expand L3/4/5 technical education.
Our colleges have the breadth of capability across all the major UK economic sectors with a cost base that is efficient and much lower than universities. Collab Group colleges work with over 60,000 employers and these relationships and the ability to design employer-led curriculum, makes leadership in the higher technical space a natural fit.
Avoiding the prescription of universal solutions
Further questions remain. One is about how we avoid the prescription of universal solutions. Colleges are not a homogenous group, and so any attempts to impose a uniform solution will likely not deliver the intended results. This was the experience of the area-based review process where an identical solution generated markedly different outcomes across localities.
Some of the proposals outlined in the White Paper may need further refinement. For example, the intention for greater collaboration between colleges is undoubtedly welcome, but equally important is the need to enhance collaboration and reduce unnecessary competition between GFEs, universities and sixth form colleges.
Longer-term, there are still questions around the details of a sustainable funding settlement for colleges and the mechanisms for increased intervention powers for colleges in financial difficulty.
However, we remain hopeful that these details will be conceptualised and agreed upon as part of a comprehensive and collaborative process of engagement with leaders across the further education sector.
Colleges have always proven themselves to be adaptive and responsive to new demands. The last year has demonstrated this. A new series of challenges confront colleges over the next year, but they will be able to rise to the occasion as ever.