Covid-19 has changed the college sector: we now work in different ways, possibly in different places, and our learners may study and train differently. This change has the potential, if we seize the opportunity, to create a better future for FE. So, what does the current crisis help to reveal about what a college of the future could look like?
Lockdown and the increased use of technologies has forced many of us into the "other lives" of our colleagues; "other life" being the life we live away from work. Suddenly, we have had the privilege of meeting colleagues’ families, maybe as they deliver a welcome cup of tea during a Teams Business meeting. Or in the case of my colleague Erika, her seven-year-old son Noah coming in to earnestly explain to mum why he was convinced doing his maths homework was not necessarily the best use of his time.
This glimpse into people’s lives has rewarded us with a greater understanding of the reasons why our colleagues work, what they care about, and what their lives are like outside of work.
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Many staff have decided that working from home is a preferred option, providing greater work-life balance and the opportunity to reintegrate into those communities that some had previously just passed by. This includes spending more time with family and friends, taking a well-deserved break for a few moments and having the time to chat to previously unknown neighbours, catching up on local news, and becoming a proactive community member rather than perhaps previously a reactive observer.
It is not that big a leap to suggest we have become more invested in those around us, both at work and in their other life. If that is the case, an FE system that provides more security and more stability is surely something we should seek to achieve.
However, it is not just about security and stability – in a world beset with climate emergencies, sustainability would be crazy to ignore. At one of our colleges – in an urban setting – there was the sudden arrival of a deer in the grounds. Admittedly, one of my concerns was the deer did not die as I was not sure how we would handle the death of Bambi from a PR perspective. Luckily, it did not, and after a few weeks, it went on its way. The regular sightings of ducks on the high street, sheep window shopping, buzzards in our towns and so on, has developed an increased awareness of what our environment could be.
From chaos comes opportunity, someone once said. Investing in resources, creating new environmentally friendly learning and working environments and not simply returning to old ways of being has to be something we aspire to.
We know we can be trusted to do the right thing. Government mandates did not need to tell us that we needed to safeguard our most vulnerable during the pandemic. We instinctively knew that the rapid development of online resources would both stimulate learning and provide structure for our students whose lives Covid-19 had suddenly torn apart in terms of social contact. We all just cracked on.
Intuitively, we know our college communities and instinctively we care. That is FE – it is part of our DNA. We want to be able to focus on teaching and training, and on supporting our students, building outstanding networks of learning; not completing administration so that at some point, someone somewhere can hold us to account. Therefore, an argument regarding less regulation would seem both logical and compelling.
So, if a system that provided a long-term funding settlement, enhanced investment and streamlined oversight were possible, surely we should seize the opportunity. A transformational rather than transactional system. A system that enables stability and security for our staff and students. A system that's well-resourced, environmentally friendly, and that enables us to make the right local decisions we would, I suggest, welcome.
Would we choose such an opportunity when the risks were concerned with changes to corporate structures and hierarchies, job titles and status, and the challenges of collaborating with others? I think we might, but I believe we should. We should take the learning that Covid-19 has provided and seize the opportunity to take a long-term view. Such a system would be better for our staff, our environment, and thus our students.
The Independent Commission on the College of the Future highlights a new approach – a new system built on collaboration. A system where place is critical and the focus is on empowerment and trust, enabling life-changing opportunities and support, boosting productivity, and strengthening every community’s sense of being, as we recover from COVID-19 and look to the future.
The Climate Commission for UK Further and Higher Education is looking at the changes we have to make as a sector to address the climate emergency and move urgently towards a net-zero climate economy. The work of these two commissions has to make sense, even to those that do not necessarily share my optimistic perspective.
Our recent and current experiences through Covid-19 provides a perfect launchpad to ensure high-quality local delivery that is accessible to all – a new national social partnership. Let’s get behind the College for the Future Commission, be proactive in our engagement, and challenge them to present an ambitious set of proposals providing hope for the future, taking an extreme situation and creating a revolutionised system, a transformational system, for the future of FE.
Phil Cook is chief executive and group principal of the Education Training Collective