It has been an exciting time at the Association of Colleges (AoC) . At the end of August, the chancellor announced the first funding rate increase for over seven years for colleges. Sure, it was a modest increase, but the promise was that more would follow in the oft-postponed spending review. We were also gearing up for the secretary of state for education not just speaking at our annual conference but also making a significant announcement. Something that sadly has not happened for a very long time.
Then politics intervened. A general election was imminent and the focus at AoC in October became firmly on what we would be doing if one was called. Drafts of a general election manifesto began to come together, support materials for our members were prepared and a new Plan B for our annual conference in November was rapidly devised. That Plan B presumed, rightly as it turned out, that no politicians would attend and the many officials due to speak would have to pull out as well because of the restrictions placed on them during an election campaign.
Election 2019: Colleges are essential to our future
Last week, we had our annual conference. Never before has it been held in a campaign period, and never before without politicians and officials. To be fair, some officials attended, but they behaved themselves by not saying too much, despite wanting to.
Pleasingly, the conference went well and oddly it seemed to have a very different feel to usual. A few delegates told me that they felt more engaged, able to debate and share, rather than being in “receive mode”, listening and responding to politicians and officials. My plea to college leaders at the conference was for us to work more collaboratively with each other, with government and with employers, schools, universities and other partners. It felt, in some ways, as if we had started doing just that during two days free of politics and almost with no mention of Brexit. It was refreshing and energising. So much so, that I do wonder whether we should do it more often.
The mood was helped by the number of positive announcements beforehand by the major political parties. The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have now shown their hands, and colleges are essential institutions in their visions of the future. Billions of pounds have been promised for colleges and their students. So much so, that it looks likely, whatever the outcome of the election, we will have a government which could make the 2020s a renaissance for colleges. After a dire decade of neglect, colleges deserve it.
The importance of student voice
Our annual conference may have had no politicians this year, but what it lacked in political figures it made up for in students, in what was a first for us. Student governors are an integral part of understanding the student experience, so having them join college leaders at our events seemed like a logical step forward. For the first time student governors undertook training provided by Unloc, followed by a day as full participants in the conference. It helped student governors to understand their roles better and contributed to the collaborative debates between college leaders. It was a great step forward in encouraging a louder student voice in our sector.
We’ve always had great student performances, of course, and this year we were entertained by amazing young people from Dudley and Stockton Riverside colleges. There was also a plethora of students gaining invaluable work experience in media, conference management, hospitality and flower arrangements.
I suspect that we will never quite have a conference like this one again, but I do know that we will remember it for some time to come. Next year I have every expectation that the secretary of state for education will prioritise it and want to make a significant announcement, whatever the lay of the land by then. We can all have some hope that the focus on colleges we have been enjoying for some months now translates into a long-term, sustainable investment from the next government. That feels like a real prospect now, whatever the outcome of the election.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges