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Colleges to measure their worth

As the chair of the 157 Group of high-performers settles in, plans are afoot to audit the impact of FE on the economy

COLLEGES ARE to work together on a project they hope will dispel any lingering doubts that spending on further education brings rich rewards for the economy.

Twenty-three colleges all the members of the 157 Group of high-performing FE institutions are to carry out a series of socio-economic studies to measure their contribution to the bottom line of UK plc.

Elaine McMahon, principal of Hull College and newly appointed chair of the influential group, said initial work on the project was already underway.

The idea comes from the United States, where colleges have raised their profile among politicians by carrying out audits of their impact on communities in terms of increased productivity and reduced rates of ill health, criminality and welfare dependency.

When similar research was carried out at Mid-Warwickshire College earlier this year, Ioan Morgan, its principal and previous chair of the 157 Group, was able to demonstrate that for every pound;1 spent on the college, the economy was ultimately pound;7 better off.

Ms McMahon said: "I think, for us, improving the reputation of FE is about demonstrating to employers and learners the value for money that we give. These reports on the socio-economic impact of colleges will demonstrate that, particularly to employers."

Ms McMahon was elected earlier this summer to chair the group, which took its name from the paragraph that dealt with reputation in Sir Andrew Foster's FE review, published in November 2005.

She worked for a local authority and as an administrator in a solicitors' firm before being invited to give evening class lectures in business studies. After that, she trained as a full-time lecturer, rising through the management ranks and taking her first job as principal at Salford College, before moving to Hull four years ago.

During the 1980s, she spent three years working at a community college in the United States. "I found the can-do culture very inspiring and their approach to working with employers," she said.

US employers were very aware of the need to engage with community colleges and to support them, she said. "I remember seeing rooms of computers supplied free to the college. That was their way of sponsoring young people to learn."

Ms McMahon said she viewed the coming year as one of consolidation for the 157 Group, which was officially launched in January and swiftly earned the Government's favour with its positive approach and the pound;1 billion of funding its members command.

She said there would be no attempt to increase the number of group members beyond the possible addition of four colleges that were invited before she took over.

Instead, the group will focus on getting its members heard on issues such as self-regulation.

"There is so much happening that we need to reflect on our strengths as we progress," she said.

"We need to build on the vision of the 157 Group as being a representative body of some of the largest colleges in the country, taking forward its remit of being positive and supporting policies when we know they are fit for purpose.

"It's about advancing our aims of leading our sector, being able to meet the challenges the Government has set for us and looking at these challenges in a positive way."

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