More than ever, communication within an organisation is the key to dealing with the current Further Education agenda. As colleges attempt to embrace the rapidity of change, while maintaining the prime focus on the learner, staff need to be well informed about the strategic changes.
"Ah", you say, "fine, but the picture is different every week." Granted this may be the case, but it is no excuse not to communicate. And the flow of information, let's not forget, works both ways, up and down. Managers need to be totally clear in the communication of their objectives but equally lecturers and administrative staff must feed key information upwards.
Actually, the future of FE is abundantly clear. Colleges have to rapidly change their ethos and move to a greater commercial focus. The ability to offer "more for less" is now the norm and no longer a challenge and there will be huge expectations of managers, teachers and learners. Possibly the greatest danger is that the pace of change will move at parallel levels but at different rates. As FE changes rapidly for instance, are the Quality Assurance Agencies, the Sector Skills Councils and the Awarding Bodies moving at the same pace? At the present time, the answer is not clear with many examples suggesting the answer is "no".
Irrespective of this anomaly colleges of course are already moving at a massive pace. There are key examples of hubs being created for skills relating to environmental technologies and nuclear energy, to name just two. From these, hub and spokes models are emerging across the country which will ensure a clear process for upskilling for industry. Equally niche markets for training are being created, many involving partnerships between colleges, industry and, in some cases, private training providers.
Simultaneous with this agenda is the potential of 'HE in FE' and I see Further Education as playing a crucial part in the advancement of degree qualifications, particularly as potential students will have quite onerous fees to find in the light of Government changes in funding. At the present time there is wide debate over the level of fees to be charged for degree courses but equally there will be a major demand for very high quality provision provided 'on the doorstep' but not necessarily at vastly reduced cost, as this could well mean major reductions in quality of provision.
Against such a backdrop we also face the potential of an attack on the pensions of those in education today. There is a unified force of opposition developing, however, and it will be interesting to observe the response of Government with regards to this highly sensitive issue, seen by the profession as being part of the package of becoming a teacher or lecturer. Time will tell and it will certainly place a focus upon trade unions at this difficult time.
But setting this issue aside for a moment – how is change and communication affecting your institution? I have no doubt that every reader of this article will have a story to tell. For my own college, you will understand that I obviously want utopia – dynamic and entrepreneurial staff, superb quality, diverse provision, sound finances and robust governance. The reality is not that far removed – we are certainly past the half way mark with many of the attributes detailed moving in the right direction. However, I am not complacent and the next stage of the journey will be exceptionally tricky but doable. It will involve calculated risk – why is that you might ask?
Well, the next stage will require enhanced communication and better recognition of our staff and this will involve a re-examination of financial and other rewards for the professionals we employ. Quite a challenge, which will require significant commitment from all concerned, including governors, but we want FE to have the professional recognition it truly deserves, then the agenda will have to change. I'll let you know what happens...
Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, Weston-super-Mare