With students flooding back to study on campuses this week, it’s a good time to take stock of some of the big issues facing colleges.
Colleges have worked hard to plan their mass Covid testing as part of the suite of measures to maximise the safety of more face-to-face learning. Initial feedback is that staff and students alike are pleased to be back, even though some are, understandably, nervous. The most important measure is the impact this has on the R rate over the coming weeks and how that impacts on the wider roadmap to easing lockdown. Meanwhile, it feels like positive progress that 650,000 young people and many adults can now get on with their learning and back to the social interactions we have all missed so much.
All too much of the media focus is on schools, of course, and that will always be the toughest challenge colleges face as a sector, even though the work we have done over recent years has raised their profile and standing. There are still too many occasions when the government, commentators, politicians and the media get it wrong and we are forced into saying #andcolleges. As a smaller sector (£7 billion turnover) than universities (£38 billion) and schools (£51 billion), colleges will always need to be shouting loud to be heard; and, as a misunderstood sector, the risk is that they will always be overlooked.
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I’m optimistic, though, that things have changed and this is a moment for colleges. The vital role colleges play is increasingly coming to the fore and the mega-trends facing the UK will accelerate that understanding.
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Colleges will be central to grasping the opportunities and seeing off the challenges of all the global shifts our country faces. Not alone, but part of the response and vital to it. How else will the UK adapt to the climate crisis and make the journey to net carbon zero? How else can the UK respond to demographic changes that mean people will need retraining throughout their lives and to the increasingly diverse population? How else will the UK address the current and growing inequalities and become more inclusive? How else will the UK support citizens and employers to embrace and thrive as technological change sweeps through life and work?
That long-term perspective might feel too far off in our pandemic-limited lives, but there are other urgent priorities that the government needs to face up to where colleges are also vital. Since the 2008 economic and banking crisis, productivity has flatlined and has been a brake on UK economic growth and prosperity. There are many factors in improving this, but more people with better education and skills are a key part of the solution. Improving productivity will be a major underpinning aim of the government, and colleges can use that to their advantage.
At the same time, demographic shifts, Brexit and the pandemic have markedly changed our labour market. College training for growth sectors and skills shortages will become increasingly important as the economy hauls itself out of recession. The government recognised this in the recent Skills for Jobs White Paper, giving colleges another opportunity to win the investment they need to deliver.
It doesn’t stop there, because the focus on lost learning and the need to have an education recovery plan once again puts colleges in the spotlight. As local anchor institutions, colleges will be safe havens for young people and adults struggling to find work in this economic crisis, just like in every one before it. So, as well as extra funding for existing students, colleges are seeking investment to give them the flexibility to meet the skills needs of unemployed people of all ages and offer education leavers this year more time to learn to prepare for a tough labour market.
There are lots of opportunities for colleges to earn their place in the spotlight, to argue for better investment, to show how vital they are to every community, to people, to employers and to the economy.
It almost feels as if we are inching our way towards a stronger culture of lifelong learning and to a future where thriving colleges can stand tall alongside other vital education institutions like universities, adult education providers and third-sector organisations.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges