College performance has dropped - but why?

Today's performance indicators show a dip in overall performance – but there's more to this than meets the eye, writes principal Grant Ritchie

Today's college PIs show a drop in performance - but what is actually behind that?

Today, the performance indicators (PIs) for the Scottish college sector are formally announced. As predicted, the overall college performance dropped compared to previous years. Our own college had a really good year in 2017-18 and we were the top-performing college in both full-time higher national (HN) and non-advanced programmes. We have dipped in 2018-19, however, and while our numbers are still relatively strong, we have not remained “top of the pops” (or whatever young people call it these days).

So what’s going on? Why are we seeing a drop in performance? Is it a sign of the times, a harbinger of difficult times to come?

Here are some thoughts on what may be happening and a few observations on how we may need to change the way we measure performance to better reflect the world we live in.

Background: Fewer students successfully reach end of their course

Opinion: 'Colleges show there is no wrong path to success'

News: Schools and colleges 'should assess joint performance'

Keeping students

For a start, there is no doubt that with schools keeping more young people on to sixth year, and with universities active in widening access, fewer young people will be available to come into colleges full time. Simple.

We lost 25 students this session who had registered with us in mid-August and were all set to start when they were offered university places in clearing and left before our term got underway. That’s great – it may be the best thing to happen for those young learners – but it leaves us with a problem.

Teachers were employed to teach them, timetables were organised that rapidly need to be reorganised and we were left with an early hit to our retention stats.

We have also seen an increase in universities offering unconditional places to students before they have finished their programme, thereby reducing any incentive for those students to achieve on their college course. The great national drive for one system, full alignment and proper articulation goes out of the window in the reality of the chase for students. We are left with more students branded unsuccessful in the college system and a bad PI, despite the fact they achieved their goal and moved on to degree study.

If schools are keeping them and universities are taking them, then it is also easy to predict that those learners that are coming to college will arrive with different skills and backgrounds. Many may be from harder-to-reach backgrounds, many may arrive with barriers to learning and the need for various forms of support. How ready are we for this? Do we have the right curriculum in place to nurture different types of learners? Or do we place them on our standard programmes and hope for the best?

Colleges are terrific at bringing learners in and making them employable, turning workless individuals into people who can contribute to society, earn their way and reduce dependency on state support. If those coming into colleges are harder to reach than before, or bring bigger challenges, then that needs to be recognised in our measurement frameworks.

Let’s look at day-one recording for example. If we are going to offer places to people who need support, or have done less well a school, we need to be cut some slack to help them find the right path. It may not be on the first programme they try, it may take a couple of false starts.

A false start may not be a failure but the first step to success. And yet, the college will be damned with poor early retention stats and beaten about the head by government. The English system does not count from day one. We should adjust to count from the date that funding is confirmed rather than from registration, but that should just be the start of a conversation about how to measure what colleges do to get the value understood and recognised in the right places.

Grant Ritchie is principal of Dundee and Angus College


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