Colleges Week 2020: Why it is about empowering FE

This week is about staff and students confidently telling everyone why they love colleges and what they do for our world, writes David Hughes

David Hughes

Colleges Week 2020 needs to be about empowering colleges and their staff and students, writes David Hughes

Colleges Week 2020 is here and will provide an important reminder of the impact that colleges make all year round, across the country. The week gives all of us working in and with colleges the opportunity to celebrate why we #LoveOurColleges – their contribution to helping people get on in life, get a job, progress onto greater things will all feature in the activities colleges have planned. For me, it is a chance to wear my pride at being a small part of this sector which supports diversity, a more inclusive and tolerant world, communities, people at all levels and stages of learning and life.

I’m looking forward to the stories from the students who embody the essence of colleges as they talk about the confidence, the self-esteem and the opportunities they have gained from their college experience. But it is, of course, so much more than that. As we celebrate and applaud colleges and their students, it is worth dwelling on what our society and economy would be like without them for a moment. Just like schools and universities, hospitals and doctor’s surgeries, trains and buses, bin collectors and park keepers, colleges are a vital part of the fabric of our lives.

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Sadly, though, colleges have suffered neglect from policymakers, politicians and from chancellors over the past decade. They have been overlooked, misunderstood and pushed around. They have been viewed as "just another supplier" rather than as part of the national infrastructure and the relationship with government is best described as transactional rather than supportive and certainly not strategic.

We started #CollegesWeek in 2018 because we believed that the neglect had gone on for too long. We yearned for things to change, for a better relationship, to be better understood, to get the funding and the policies which would help colleges thrive and deliver even more impact. In early 2018, we believed that things were starting to change, with the government and the Department for Education beginning to recognise that the neglect needed to end. I had begun to have some hope that funding would start to flow and that colleges would be a higher priority.

But in the summer of 2018, after many months of discussions, at the last hurdle, a promising funding bid from DfE for colleges was rejected by the Treasury. I was gutted. After months of hard work and my hopes rising, I felt that, finally, we would be able to give college leaders, staff and students a boost in morale and investment.

That’s when we decided to launch #CollegesWeek. Looking back, it was an ambitious decision and not without risks. We joined forces with anyone and everyone who was willing, and we did our fair share of cajoling and calling in favours to deliver the first-ever week of celebration. The trades unions were fantastic partners, supporting a march and a never-to-be-forgotten rally in Parliament Square, with speeches in the drizzle from an open-top bus. MPs saw us, civil servants said they wished they’d been able to join in. Students, college leaders and staff stood together to celebrate and be proud of our sector.

The essence of colleges and post-16 education for me has always been about empowerment. About giving people the knowledge and skills to critically analyse, to understand the world they live in, to have the confidence to have an informed view about our society. And then to be empowered to try to change it – through democratic processes, social action, work, and the way we live.

And it’s that essence that runs through #CollegesWeek. This is not a campaign led by a clever London-based media and comms company. It’s not about spin and slogans. It’s not about a few of us nationally getting into the media and sounding eloquent. No, it’s about hundreds of thousands of students, staff, leaders boldly, proudly and confidently telling everyone why they love colleges, what they do for our world and why everyone else needs to know. #CollegesWeek works because it empowers people to have a voice, in the same way colleges do for their students.

So, wherever you are in the country, you’ll be pretty close to a college. Take the time this week to see what the college does for your community and place. Support the activities. Get involved, write to your MP about why investing in colleges is so important. Get active, have a voice, and enjoy being part of one of the unsung, least understood jewels in our public infrastructure. You’ll love it and we’ll welcome you with open arms.

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David Hughes

David Hughes

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

Find me on Twitter @AoCDavidH

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