As levels of unemployment increase, there is a real surge of interest from the 19-25 age group in terms of reskilling and gaining qualifications to enter employment. The interest in apprenticeships is much greater than has ever been seen, but for many colleges enrolments for traditional adult courses fell dramatically until the recent announcement from Government regarding recognition of certain benefits for fee remission.
One can appreciate that the picture may vary from one geographical region to another, but in many areas of the country there is a real reluctance on the part of potential learners to consider loans or large fees to undertake study. Therefore, plans for the academic year 2012/13 surely need to be considered carefully. If we get it wrong, then I fear for the viability of courses such as Access provision, which provide a real gateway for the progression to both Higher Education and Employment.
So are we adopting a blinkered approach in Further Education? Quite the opposite I suggest. We have great flexibility and entrepreneurial skills to meet the skills needs of the UK. Our approaches are many and diverse, but the learners must have a motivating influence and high levels of incurred debt are unlikely to be the solution. The real solution must be a partnership between colleges, employers and Job Centre Plus, and it is impressive to see the work that is being done by the Skills Funding Agency and the Association of Colleges in meeting such a need. Equally, the work of the Local Enterprise Partnership in the West of England in advancing the skills agenda is both focused and making an impact.
So what am I proposing? A re-examination of fees for vocational training, more linkages with key partners and, on top of that, planning of learning in an economic/commercial environment. We are also nearing the time when Further Education colleges will have the opportunity to bid for direct HE numbers. There is NO doubt that the cost of delivering such a course will be paramount but equally, I hope that real attention is given to the whole issue of quality assurance. Parameters such as the available resources for delivery, the results of IQER and the proportion of first class honours will hopefully be paramount in the decision making.
As we re-examine the Adult environment, one can see many pitfalls, but equally many opportunities. If we are to truly put the learner first, then we will need to ensure our adult offer is both diverse, reflective of skills demand and affordable. Perhaps also we should consider this issue of 19-25 year olds, or rather what is left. What is the Skills Agenda for age 25+? My experience of adult learners (either returning to study or entering learning officially for the first time) is that they are in the age 25-50 bracket, yet the opportunities for this age range seem somewhat vague. Saying that, I went to a meeting this week to look at an "Older Persons Strategy" where old was defined as 50 years plus. At this point in the meeting I felt decidedly ancient! Equally there is no shortage of learners in the "old" bracket.
Well I am going to sit in front of the fire now, put on my slippers and take the cup of hot chocolate. I certainly don't feel old but actually I am over 25 and over 50. Is there hope for me?
Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, Weston-super-Mare
Read other FE News articles by Paul Phillips:
Will the real teacher please step forward
Weston College principal on coping with change
An evolving FE requires continuous clarity