With college enrolment in full swing this week, it is a very different process to the one we used to experience pre-pandemic. Most applications and queries are now online, making it easier for many prospective students to sign up for courses. For anyone not able to engage in the online process, on-site enrolment clinics are up and running with specific recruitment events being held.
As is the case with so many things, Covid-19 has fundamentally changed many entrenched systems and processes across FE. From enrolment itself to increased blended and flexible learning options for students, the positive impact of recent changes is being seen.
But we are increasingly recognising the changing world around us. Industry needs are transforming, and skills gaps are opening and closing in many different areas. FE is not only having to adapt to this but must increasingly take the lead by creating provision and stimulating interest in these ‘new’ and economically significant sectors.
Stem, healthcare and digital innovation are all areas of projected growth over the coming years and most at risk of skills shortages. The career opportunities on offer are likely to be plentiful in these industries, with a plethora of jobs, apprenticeships and employer-led training programmes.
Yet as is clear by our own enrolment figures, ICT, engineering and digital media courses are not filling as quickly as our more traditional curriculum areas such as plumbing and hair and beauty.
We are also seeing a lower number of adult enrolments, indicating that people are prioritising getting a job over learning and potentially missing out on acquiring the higher-level technical skills that would offer more earning potential and support employers.
At London South East Colleges, we work hard to equip students with the employability and technical skills they need to progress in fulfilling employment and successful careers. We want to create opportunity for our students by ensuring they are well informed about the future options open to them – and have new, innovative provision on offer.
We want to attract as many new students as possible to ensure the college remains financially secure and can continue to offer a diverse curriculum. And we work hard to plan our curriculum with employer-led panels, validating our offer and ensuring it meets business priorities and skills gaps.
The conundrum of providing popular courses that students want to study as opposed to courses with the best job prospects or earning potential is however likely to be addressed in part by the imminent Level 3 reforms.
The government has committed to the shake-up, which will see funding removed from L3 qualifications that "overlap in content" with T levels – with the ultimate aim of removing ‘low quality qualifications that lack job prospects’.
Whether you view this as an effective streamlining of the current system or dramatically reducing choice, it is a huge change that won’t just affect curriculum planning, but every college’s entire business.
The importance of balancing technical skills provision and matching this with labour market skills utilisation remains the major challenge at the forefront of skills policy. Intervention by policy makers on managing this market has not yet solved this complex problem globally or nationally, although there are some more established models and systems, which are influencing the thinking.
Working with the CBI and our local Chambers of Commerce has reinforced in my own mind how important it is to establish networks to build intelligence from, and to inform, the supply side of the skills market. These must be long-term and sustainable relationships, enabling regulation of supply and demand via careers advice, alignment and investment in skills to genuinely meet the needs of local, regional and national economies.
The way we market and promote our provision is also an important factor. Such a dramatic change to Level 3 provision will require significant marketing and information campaigns to help prospective students understand their options – which are likely to be very different to the ones they may have been expecting. The intricacies of qualification frameworks can be complex and employers as well as parents and students will need support to understand exactly what skills students are likely to be equipped with.
This will be a complex process with many challenges, yet it also marks the ideal time for a shift towards newer, innovative industries and a change in mindset around ‘traditional’ jobs and courses.
Our role as an FE college must be to embrace the global economic changes, as the world becomes increasingly reliant on technology and digitisation. FE and HE provision has to reflect this, with innovative thinking and the development of effective industry partnerships across the board. We also need the freedom to innovate and respond to demand in the same way HEIs can with awarding powers.
The benefit of modular and credit frameworks at higher levels are being recognised by the OfS, which has recently launched programmes of short courses at higher levels to widen participation and access to higher level skills in bite size chunks. We need the same flexibility at level 3 and below.
An example of innovation is our recent win of over £90,000 from the Higher Technical Education Growth Fund to create a "health ward" at our Bromley Campus. This will enable students to develop skills in an industry-standard facility, in a sector that has a high demand new talent. It will enable us to develop and deliver NHS work programmes in partnership with the NHS confederation and health professionals’ network – ensuring that we can generate higher technical skills across our Boroughs.
We are confident that this type of industry-focused approach will attract students, giving them the benefit of creating links with employers while training in first class facilities. Healthcare is a huge area, vital to local economies and communities. We will be replicating these partnerships across our curriculum, including our work with cybersecurity specialist McAfee to inspire and promote careers in this exciting industry.
However, to ensure supply and demand for skills can stabilise and deliver the sustained impact needed, a longer-term view must be taken, with evidence-based policy reform mechanisms established. This won’t happen overnight but now is the right time for the sector and its partners to focus on long-term sustainable solutions to curriculum design as we race quickly into the future.
Dr Sam Parrett is the chief executive and group principal of London and South East Education Group.