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How can FE colleges keep up with student expectations for learning resources?

Chancellor George Osbourne’s announcement that the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will make an extra £450 million in savings in the 2015-16 financial year presents even deeper concern for the FE sector still reeling from recent cuts of £249 million to the adult skills budget.

Despite cost-cutting, which is rocking individual colleges to the core, institutions are being challenged to invest in learning resources through the development of digitally-led innovation, specific curriculum requirements for technical provision, and to make sure the methods of delivery meet the needs of the modern-day student.

Our recent survey of over 150 professional staff in FE colleges found that following the budget cuts, and without taking into account what other bad news on funding is around the corner, just 5% of institutions can afford all the resources needed to support teaching and learning.

The research was revealed this month in our new insight report, ‘A digital student learning experience: How can the FE sector deliver increased digital resources against the backdrop of budget cuts?‘, which sought the views of Heads of IT, Heads of Learning Resources and Library Managers in colleges across the UK.

20% of respondents said their college was looking to cut spending for learning resources – despite one in three professionals reporting that current learning resources in FE do not meet the expectations of students or teaching staff – and two thirds of respondents said their priority ?for the next academic year was to provide more online resources for curriculum delivery.

As well as the survey, the report draws on in-depth contributions from senior academic and professional staff at the Association of Colleges, The 157 Group, Cambridge Regional College, Central College Nottingham, Gateshead College, Havering College, North Nottinghamshire College, North West Regional College, South Thames College, Warwickshire College and West Nottinghamshire College.

The research, undertaken in March and April 2015, found that colleges are under increasing pressure to keep up with student expectations. Yet they simply can’t afford all the resources needed to support teaching and learning – digital and traditional resources – and even existing provision is being reviewed in many colleges despite wide acknowledgement that this does not currently meet student or staff expectations.

So what can be done? Budget, of course, is a huge issue – and that’s where organisations like Eduserv, a supplier of reduced price agreements for software licenses, online resources and access to publications for FE colleges, come in. Colleges have suggested how they would also benefit from cost-sharing through regional, FE or FE-HE purchasing and shared services. There is an opportunity to explore this further.

But actually we found it’s more than a budget issue. The overall buying process for colleges is perceived to be extremely difficult. Ineffective procurement of learning resources was identified as a major issue in our report. A general lack of communications between IT/library professionals and academic staff – and poor staff engagement in new technologies – was cited by many respondents. There is also an ‘upskilling’ issue – those we surveyed want more development around best practice for managing learning resources, negotiation skills, support in reducing costs and managing budgets.

Most colleges see increasing the range of online resources as the top priority around the student learning experience in the next academic year – with many striving to meet the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (Feltag) target for 10% of all course content to be delivered online – but the harsh reality is they are operating with their hands tied behind their backs. They just can’t afford all the resources needed to support teaching and learning, and things could get worse before they get better.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Our report highlighted some examples of excellent practice around approaches to the digital learning experience at an institution-by-institution level. Many spoke about the need for greater prioritisation. But there was also a sense of huge frustration that more could and should be done to help institutions meet student expectations and give them the appropriate resources to impact on learning.

The full report can be downloaded at:

Nikki Green is business development manager at Eduserv, a not-for-profit IT service provider specialising in Further and Higher Education

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