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The government's spending review has presented some real and serious challenges to FE institutions. However, with every threat comes an opportunity for those willing and flexible enough to adapt. The government's intention to abolish the existing regional development authorities (RDAs) presents an opportunity for smart FE colleges. With the right implementation of existing resources they can build a more diverse base of revenue sources and reduce dependence on the public purse.

While public sector funding cuts will make life difficult and inevitably push colleges to consider a 'more for less' approach, it is not all doom and gloom. Although significant, government funding is not the only source of income open to FE institutions. The abolition of the RDAs presents an exciting opportunity for FE institutions to go out to local industry and forge profitable relationships, which could be a blessing in disguise.

Employers are beginning to turn to online services for their staff for the facilitation and delivery of learning due to the demands of the workplace and restrictions on employees' time and availability. As the spiritual home of apprenticeships, FE colleges are familiar with the concept of taking learning outside of the classroom. However, too few are leveraging their existing investments in learning technology to their fullest effect to offer employer training courses online.

Collaboration software in particular, with its ability to replicate existing aspects of the learning experience and extend an institution's offering to a more diverse array of learners, is well placed to help in this regard. In fact, Newcastle College, Middlesbrough College and Doncaster College have all already had success with investing in employer training schemes. This leaves them well placed to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the abolition of the RDAs to diversify their revenue streams.

The major benefit for FE institutions of such initiatives is that they can enhance a college's reputation both locally and on a global scale. Working directly with local industry helps FE colleges to ensure the courses they offer match the needs of both the employer and learners. This allows them to further cement their status at the heart of their local communities, while simultaneously, in the modern economy many of these employer based courses also have a global appeal. Distance learning via an online platform is an excellent way of offering this locally gained knowledge to a global customer base, allowing the college to expand virtually through the enrolment of students outside of its traditional catchment area.

Colleges are ideally placed in the centre of the educational system and can act as the glue in a truly joined up educational ecosystem that links secondary and tertiary educational institutions with each other and with the workplace. The glue in this case is a virtual educational environment that allows students to move seamlessly between institutions and indeed be enrolled in more than one at the same time, including whilst in full time employment. Such a system of dual enrolment (and dual credit) can encourage students to stay within the education sector, potentially for life, rather than dropping out before reaching their true academic potential. Such educational ecosystems exist in other countries and some have now been in existence long enough to show not only a proven statistical improvement in the quality and number of students in higher education, but also a true financial return on investment for the state in terms of lower costs per student year.

It goes without saying that the current funding crisis will require large scale changes to the manner in which education is delivered going forward. However, FE institutions have always proved themselves flexible and willing to adapt to their learners' needs. Every challenge is an opportunity for those who are prepared to seize the initiative and use current technology to help them enhance educational delivery and achieve business goals.

Richard Horton is vice president EMEA at Blackboard, the education software company that works with more than 5,000 institutions and millions of users


Read other FE News articles by Richard Horton:

Mobile learning holds real potential for Further Education 

The way ahead for flexible and affordable degrees is online

Continued investment in technology must be at the heart of Further Education

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