The Lounge - General Chat

The College of the Future

Observations and Commentary – You can’t do everything!

So the much anticipated report has been released today formulating a commentary on the College of the future for 2030. 

You can’t say it isn’t ambitious in terms of it’s recommendations – after all – saying a College should be central to and delivering everything has to be ambitious; but is it really realistic given their past track record since incorporation in 1992.

There is much to be lauded about the report and some of the recommendations – for instance I would totally agree that a College should be the focus locally and in some cases regionally for the development and skills policy to meet local communities, lifelong learning and assessing the needs to employment skills – fulfilling a policy formulation role – something I have advocated for many years. 

It would not surprise me that the forthcoming white paper will cement this role given the excellent role played by AOC in representing the College sector during COVID-19. The role of Colleges has often been underestimated and lacks appreciation in their work with local communities. It surprised me that there was little or no mention of the increasing influence of Multi Academy Trusts – nearly 50% of all School pupils attend Schools governed and managed by MAT’s – and their local and often regional influence is significant. Harnessing this with an increased role for Colleges would be powerful but needs cementing in policy and hopefully legislation. 

Colleges since 1992 have endeavoured to do many things – they are undoubtedly responsive to changing Government and DFE priorities but the level of success in most of these initiatives has been patchy at best. This is not a reflection on the ability of College leaders, but more about the span of responsibility – often being ‘pushed’ into activities which most would prefer not to take on. As such, the concept of ‘narrow and deep’ is not known to many in the sector; delivering well in your chosen areas and choosing NOT to deliver in those areas where you cannot deliver the appropriate level of quality and indeed volume. In my experience, attracting the right skilled people is a consequence of being able to deliver volume in a chosen sector or programme area. 

I began to get a little lost in terms of credibility with the long list of functions that the report recommends a College should lead on. To suggest that Colleges should lead on the whole aspect of ‘productivity’ with business was most surprising – clearly the authors or members of the steering group have not looked at the level of investment business makes to continually driving productivity gains – do we really believe a College lecturer can add value to this – and if so, how much would you need to pay someone to deliver the level of practical support necessary. Training some staff on ‘Lean’ is only part of the answer.

That leads me to what I believe to be the most important conclusion of the report – a modern College in 2030 will be a ‘facilitator’ of provision to meet the needs of its local communities, businesses and lifelong learning. It will determine the needs – in conjunction with other stakeholders and then consider how those needs will be fulfilled. The successful Colleges will be those whose leaders see the need for effective collaboration – not just in policy formulation but in DELIVERY of what that policy determines. I advocated back in 2005 and it was published that a modern College would be much like John Lewis.

Successful businesses in the main are ‘narrow and deep’ – where they expand into new areas, they will more often than not create totally separate entities with independent leadership – take Amazon with AWS for example. 

At a time when sub-contracting is going to be eventually removed from the system as we know it – a knee jerk reaction to a system that has worked successfully on the whole since 1994 when Chris Webb invented it at Handsworth College – I truly hope that College leaders in shaping the future will look to develop truly partnerships and collaboration with private providers and others which will deliver benefit to learners, local employers and the communities they serve. 

Without change and collaborative thinking, we will continue with a system that is ‘full of corner shops’ – where duplication of provision across Towns and Cities is common place and as a result where the quality of outcome in terms of service to learners and employers is at best sub optimal. 

The opportunity facing Colleges is significant in the next 10 years- let’s hope the leadership of them have the vision to want to collaborate and to be clear on what they are good at – and frankly what they aren’t – I look forward to seeing a modern Franchise model of operations between Colleges, MAT’s, Private Providers and Community Groups.

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