Why FE partnerships can't be restricted by locality

Employers want value and expertise, and they're willing to go all over the country for it, writes Iain Mackinnon
4th December 2020, 12:13pm
Iain Mackinnon


Why FE partnerships can't be restricted by locality

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Who could possibly be against "local"? In its report for England, the Independent Commission for the College of the Future talks about colleges as "anchor institutions within the wider local and regional ecosystem" - and that's certainly how I saw my role when I chaired the board at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College. But as an ambition, "local" is too limiting: some parts of the economy work nationally, even internationally, and colleges should be leaders in those bigger markets, too.

Take the offshore wind sector. Britain leads the world in offshore wind with more installed capacity than any other country. Each offshore wind farm creates hundreds of skilled jobs in the design and build phase, and in manufacturing the turbines, with long-term jobs too, maintaining the turbines and their related infrastructure, both on land and offshore.

This is exactly the sort of market that colleges serve well - and they do. But where's "local" to the Dogger Bank Wind Farm? It will be the largest in the world when it's completed, capable of providing the power for 4.5 million homes, but it's 60 miles off the coast - so operators have choices, all the way up and down the east coast, and both sides of the Border.

If you were one of the hundreds of companies involved in building and then maintaining an offshore wind farm would you not want the colleges to be working together, providing you with a coherent capability statement that shows you the particular strengths and specialisms of each? 

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Indeed, let's go further: why stick with colleges only? Why stick with England only, or Scotland only?

Expertise and value

Operators don't make the distinctions we make about whether a level 4 or 5 qualification "belongs" to FE or HE. They don't care. They want expertise and they want value. And they'd really like a bit more simplicity, so if someone could help them to source the training they want through a single mechanism, rather than having to understand that some places only do levels 2 and 3 (levels 5 and 6 in Scotland - sorry about the complexity), and others only degrees, that would be really welcome.

And what about the specialist independent training providers? If I was talking to operators about the long-established maritime providers on the east coast I'd talk about Lowestoft (which is how the sector knows it, now East Coast College) and South Shields Marine School (ditto, Tyne Coast College), and Peterhead (North East Scotland College) - but I'd also talk about HOTA, the Humberside Offshore Training Association, a specialist provider in Hull. Why would I not? Employers don't care that it's a private provider; they just want to know if it's any good and what they specialise in.

I haven't mentioned money. Would HOTA get me, as an operator, access to government funding? I don't think that's nearly as important a question as it's often made out to be.

Employers want value. And they're prepared to pay for it. Of course, if they can get a subsidy from the government and the strings attached to that subsidy are not too onerous, all to the good - but sometimes the strings are too onerous. Colleges undervalue the commercial market.

A market-facing partnership

I looked it up; it was back in 2007 that I had an article in these pages urging colleges to dump the wrong-headed notion of "full-cost recovery" and embrace the commercial market. Full-cost recovery was a safe term you could use in front of colleagues who would be shocked by the word "profit". We've moved on thankfully.

The strategic partnership that the Commission advocates should not just be between colleges and employers, and it should not just be constrained to local markets: it should be a market-facing partnership between all those who can usefully contribute value to employers, using their expertise in government funding to stir it into the mix where it makes sense to do so, operating commercially where it does not.

Iain Mackinnon is a Commissioner with the new Maritime Skills Commission. He is writing in a personal capacity

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