Colleges are coming into greater political and public prominence, in England and indeed across the UK. There’s growing recognition that the success of our population and our economy relies on our capacity to grow our own skilled workforce, at all ages and levels, technically and academically, ensuring that no sector, locality or group is left behind.
The emergence of new risks brought about by the global economic uncertainty, climate change, and of course, Brexit, heightens the importance and urgency of considering how we should invest to secure the greatest returns to enable everyone to contribute to our collective future prosperity.
In response to this compelling ambition for a skilled and prosperous nation, the Independent Commission on the College of the Future is bringing a wide range of voices together. We’re exploring the existing and future roles of colleges across the four nations of the UK in raising skill and attainment levels for both young people and adults. We are also considering what can be learned from best practice internationally. There are some key questions emerging in the creation of a vision for the college of the future – looking through the lens of where we want to be from 2030 onwards.
Taking a four-nations lens opens up a number of key questions for those of us in England.
We might first ask about the skills ecosystem within which colleges sit. Significant recent structural reforms in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have resulted in greater regional collaboration through varying degrees of newly imposed top-down, nationally driven systems.
Meanwhile, in England, the ambition for collaboration seems to be loudly extolled by all, though the challenges of securing financial security lead to institutions pitting themselves against one another in an effort to survive. What would it mean for English colleges to sit within a coherent ecosystem, and what changes would this require?
Partnership with business is also emerging as a central theme. We have learned that, in the Basque Country, exemplary business partnerships and close alignment with industry are the backbone to the delivery of vocational education and training. These relationships exist in our nations, and should be a central element of all colleges in the future. If we are to truly support the workforce of the future then we must better foster partnerships. What should this look like across the UK and its diverse communities and industries?
As our colleges come to take an ever-more central role within our regional economies – and as many have grown significantly in size, too – requirements for leadership are rapidly changing. The programmes for chief executives, chair and senior leaders, run by the Education and Training Foundation and the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, explore the adaptive leadership challenge and provide some useful pointers to the sector. But we need to be clear. As college leaders face transformational challenges, what are the qualities that we should nurture? And what is the changing nature of leadership?
These are, of course, just three areas of many – but even here lie really important questions. These considerations show there is a huge amount for those of us in England to do to ensure we have a sector fit for the future, which can respond to the challenges and changes we face and help people, communities and our country to do the same.
And while, as an English college leader, my initial reflections are particularly centred in this space, the commission is looking closely at what this looks like in each of the four nations. We are clear that there are common challenges, and that colleges across the UK have a key role to play in meeting these challenges. There will, of course, have to be different recommendations and tailored approaches across the four nations, and that is why the discussions we are having across the UK are so vital.
Now really is the time to create a positive and ambitious vision and narrative for colleges across the UK, reflecting the social and technological changes we are all experiencing now, which will be even greater in the future. We have an important job to do – and this will only happen where we come together as a sector to reflect on these key questions. I am excited to continue speaking with, learning from and being challenged by colleagues right across the college sector and beyond – as we collectively step up to this important task.
Amanda Melton is chief executive and principal of Nelson and Colne College, and a commissioner on the Independent Commission on the College of the Future
The Independent Commission is supported by the Association of Colleges, City & Guilds, Colleges Scotland, Colleges Wales, Further Education Trust for Leadership, Jisc, NOCN, NCFE and Pearson. You can read more here