The Independent Commission on the College of the Future has published the findings of its investigation into how FE colleges should be structured to address the skills deficit and transform the life chances of individuals in the UK.
The Commission is an independent body and was launched “to set out a new vision for colleges in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales” in response to “seismic shifts happening across the UK.” It is supported by organisations from across the FE and skills sector, including the Association of Colleges, Colleges Scotland, Colleges Wales, the colleges in Northern Ireland, City & Guilds, the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL), Jisc, NCFE, NOCN and Pearson.
The Commission was set up by the Four Nations College Alliance, established in 2017 to bring together college leaders, their representative bodies and senior government officials from across the four nations of the UK. The mission of the Alliance is to learn from the different policy contexts and institutional practices that exist and to champion systems leadership across the sector.
The Commission report calls for every adult to have access to lifelong learning to address the UK’s skills deficit. The skills deficit will only increase, they say, because of the pandemic, Brexit, climate change and the fourth industrial revolution.
The report presents eleven recommendations, including the following measures:
- A ten-year strategy for each of the four nations, integrating employment and skills through stronger national and regional partnerships.
- Colleges should align their offerings with regional labour market needs.
- Colleges playing a role as ‘anchor institutions’, meaning they should have broader civic responsibilities, as well as meeting labour market needs.
- All citizens to have access to lifelong learning, supported by grants and/or loans.
- Targeted investment for those whose professions have been affected by the pandemic.
- Colleges should have strategic partnerships with employers.
- Colleges should set up support services to local employers to encourage innovation, employee development, technological capability, and sustainability.
- College funding should be more predictable and sustainable, and the report suggests a three-year block grant.
- There should be a single body with post-16 education and funding oversight.
- Procedures should be introduced to enhance staff development, including building digital skills capability.
- College leaders should be more diverse and representative of the communities they serve.
The report represents a necessary iteration of the value of colleges to local economies and communities and a valuable restatement of the urgent need to upskill the population. The concept of lifelong or lifetime learning has always been a critical to addressing skills needs in periods of dynamic global change. Skills sharing across the public and private sectors can reinvigorate learning content and delivery, particularly when each sector recognises the value of the other.
Questions arise, however, about the direction of travel at the national level. There is much speculation about the government’s FE white paper, due to be published later this year. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said that the government is looking at a German-style technical education system and will aim to rebalance the contributions colleges and universities make to education and training. Williamson has welcomed the Commission’s report, adding that the white paper will “ensure our colleges are at the heart of every community so we can unlock even more potential and level up skills and opportunities across the county”.
The shape of government policy aside, the report mentions but does not extensively develop the role that digital skills and capability will play in colleges. At Aptem, we understand that technology has the potential to create organisational, cultural and pedagogic change. Technology can:
- introduce efficiencies and release human capital for teaching;
- transform the culture of an institution in favour of connectivity and flexibility;
- facilitate a “shift from thinking about teaching as providing information to thinking of learning and creating learning environments” (Orwell et al. 2000).
Commenting on the report, Richard Alberg, Aptem’s CEO, said:
“The report confirms what we have long argued, namely that there needs to be a coordinated strategy to enhance skills and employability across all age groups, supported by key stakeholders such as employers.
“We particularly welcome the focus on enhancing the digital skills of the college workforce. The pandemic has shown that blended learning techniques are not only necessary but popular, giving students the flexibility to learn, work and take care of their families and lives. Colleges are in a critical position to deliver the benefits that digital skills can bring to individuals and communities alike, and we would welcome an opportunity to contribute to this thinking.”