'The beginning of serious pride in the UK's FE sector'

The Commission on the Colleges of the Future has produced its final report – here, four commissioners share their priorities for FE reform

Kate Parker

Colleges of the future: funding, workforce, employers and lifelong learning

“This is the beginning of a journey to create serious pride in the UK's FE sector, and ultimately for people to own their college, to say this is my college, this is our college, this is part of who we are,” says Marie-Thérèse McGivern.

McGivern is the former principal and chief executive of Belfast Metropolitan College and, for the last couple of years, she has sat on the Independent Commission on the Colleges of the Future. The commission – chaired by the UK’s national statistician Professor Sir Ian Diamond – has bought together 16 further education experts from all four nations of the UK to explore the future of the sector. 

Today is a big day for the commission: in McGivern words, it’s the beginning of the journey to create the colleges of the future. The final UK-wide report has been published, offering a vision for what colleges should look like by 2030 alongside 11 actions that the commissioners say need to happen for this to be realised. 

The report is packed with case studies and urgent calls for action – but McGivern says that for her, the key message is that “further education is a living, breathing thing that has so much opportunity in it for individuals”. 


The Colleges of the Future: The 11 must-haves

More: The UK needs a new vision for colleges, say FE experts

Long read: Meet the man defining the college of the future


Fellow commissioner David Jones, former chief executive of Coleg Cambria, says he hopes people realise the scale of the ambition within the report – and the need to be radical when it comes to FE reform

The recommendations include a 10-year skills plan for each of the four nations, establishing a new service through college employer hubs to tackle skills gaps, and an overhaul of the whole post-16 education and skills system. 

Adult education and lifelong learning

Commissioner Amanda Melton, chief executive and principal of Nelson and Colne College, says that for her, the focus on adult education and lifelong learning is central to FE reform. 

“What we've learned over the last few months is that the world of work is changing so rapidly that none of us can assume that what we know and can do now is going to be relevant in five, 10 or 15 years time,” she says. 

“The concept of adult learning is going to be completely upended because we're all going to have to think: what are the essential skills that we need in the future? What will be the drivers to the economy in the future? What will our towns need and how will we fulfil that?”

In the report, the commission calls for a statutory free lifetime entitlement to studying or training up to level 3 in England, Northern Ireland and Wales and level 5 in Scotland – and says that maintenance support in grants and loans for FE, HE, or advanced skills training should be available to all and at any age. 

Melton adds that it’s crucial that everyone has access to the learning they need: whether that’s short courses, higher education, part-time evening classes, or workplace upskilling. 

“We need to make sure that there is always funding available where adults need it. It should be linked to what the opportunities are for adults to contribute to the economy and to look after their families,” she says. 

“I don't necessarily think that everything should be free. But when there is training that leads to unblocking the economy, that should be free or it should be significantly supported by the government.”

Relationships with employers

Audrey Cumberford, principal and chief executive of Edinburgh College, highlights the recommendation that focuses on how colleges can engage with employers. She says that in Scotland, colleges work very closely with businesses within local regions. 

“Colleges are already supporting businesses directly with cost to market innovation, supporting their business processes to make them more efficient, supporting the training and development of their staff. What the commission does is reinforces that that's the right thing to do, that colleges are fundamental to working with businesses within the localities,” she says. 

The report advocates for colleges to establish skills-focused employer hubs which are “appropriate to the local labour market priorities”. It adds that colleges should coordinate with local and regional partners to open these facilities. 

Cumberford says that in Scotland, there is the potential for colleges to become specialists in various different industries and build employer hubs linked to those specialities. 

“If you take Edinburgh, for example, Edinburgh city has ambitions to be Europe's leading light for data innovation. So, therefore, it would make sense that as the only college in Edinburgh, we place an emphasis on that and we are driving hard towards building data analytics into every discipline that we offer because that reflects the regional economic characteristics,” she says. 

“You've got a maritime provision in Glasgow, you've got an aeronautics provision in Ayrshire and in Perth, so there are already some centres of specialisms there. There's no point in all of us doing everything and from that respect, seeking that bespoke hub model could be an appropriate way to build on what we've got already."

The future workforce

Jones calls for action around the further education workforce: their pay, contracts and development. He says that the parity of esteem that is currently in place between Welsh primary and secondary teachers and FE lecturers must be echoed across the UK. 

“In Wales, there is pay parity between school teachers and lecturers, and that was established about 10 years ago. In England, things are very inconsistent. If somebody is working in a profession and wants to teach in FE but that profession pays a lot more, we need to look for innovative and enabling ways to address that,” he says. 

The report recommends a new social partnership between colleges, unions, employers and governments to oversee key strategic priorities when it comes to the college workforce. The commissioners say that the professional status of the college teaching workforce must be recognised and staff development opportunities and wellbeing must be fostered. 

Jones says that colleges also need to look at contracts in terms of work/life balance and flexible hours – and that blended learning can play a big part in this. 

“The idea that a working week for a lecturer is largely based on teaching 25 hours a week for about 30 weeks, and if you do that that's a measure of you having done your job well was out of date at least 10 years ago,” he says. 

“Our professional colleagues in colleges are now spending more of their time developing provision that's delivered online in different ways to far greater numbers of students, and then importantly, fulfilling the role of the professional lecture teacher as providing support alongside blended learning. In my mind, that really flags up the need to have a really close look and having a really professional discussion with the trade unions around the nature of contracts in the longer term.”

Funding and accountability 

Ultimately, for colleges to become the centre of their communities, engaging with employers and driving forward the economy in the way the report sets out, McGivern says that the sector needs to be funded properly across all four nations. 

“In Northern Ireland, we live from pay-check to pay-check in the same way everybody else does. If we had at least three years rolling cycles of funding it would be so much better for long-term planning, for doing the kinds of work that we want to do, and give us some sense of what we can invest,” she says. 

“The report isn’t us sitting around saying just give us more money. What we are trying to demonstrate is that used correctly, well, and properly resourced FE can be the spine of a future successful economy: that’s the central core for the whole of the UK.” 

In the report, the commissioners urge all four governments to fund the further education sector on the basis of three-year block grant funding settlements. They say that these settlements should be based on high-level strategic outcome agreements focused on strategic impacts, and aligned to the agreed local network strategies. 

McGivern adds that alongside a long-term funding strategy and the autonomy that would give the sector, colleges must be prepared to think about their accountability. 

“The quid pro quo of a funding settlement is that colleges are prepared to think about accountability structures in a stronger way. I'm very big on digitalisation and data analytics because I think that’s the other side of getting more earned autonomy that you know comes with being good and demonstrating that you're good,” she says. 

“That earned autonomy comes at the price of being clear that you have the evidence base to say this is what we do, this is how we achieve that and these are the outcomes and that we can demonstrate that clearly.” 

The 11 recommendations

  • National strategies for education and skills to support economic growth, industrial change and lifelong learning.
  • College network strategies to meet local priorities across the tertiary education system.
  • Colleges as anchor institutions within the wider local and regional ecosystem.
  • A statutory right to lifelong learning.
  • Skills guarantee for a post-Covid economy and future labour market changes.
  • A new strategic partnership with employers.
  • A new support service to employers.
  • Stable funding and accountability frameworks for colleges.
  • A strategic relationship with governments and simplified processes.
  • An ambitious future college workforce strategy.
  • Diverse and representative systems leaders.

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.

Find me on Twitter @KateeParker

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