Ending neglect of colleges can transform the UK economy

Further education needs to be bitesized and tailored towards the needs of businesses, writes CBI's Matthew Fell

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One of the great privileges of my role as chief UK policy director at the CBI is that I get to meet so many people from so many different businesses up and down the country. The firms range in sector, size and location, but there is a key issue that runs throughout all: finding the skills needed to seize future opportunities.

At the heart of this is a concern about low productivity. Improving UK productivity – how much value each worker adds in every hour they work – is paramount to growth. It is an issue we hear a lot about but too often we forget what productivity means to people and business. It is the foundation upon which so much of our prosperity rests: higher wages, better living standards, greater opportunities produced by long-term economic growth.


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This is an issue across the UK’s regions and nations. Since the financial crisis, our productivity has stagnated. So much so, that the Office for National Statistics has said that the current situation is unprecedented in the post-war period. So how we can we begin to reverse this trend and spread growth and prosperity? And, more importantly, how can colleges help support this work?

Investing in education

There is clearly no silver bullet to increasing productivity. But we know that the importance of investing in our education and skills base cannot be underestimated. As any business leader will tell you, a company’s people are their greatest asset and investing in them is one of the surest strategies we have for growth.

As we stand on the precipice of a new way of technological change, it is important to recognise how the world of work is changing. With artificial intelligence, advances in robotics and the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, our labour market is changing, and the skills needed by businesses are rising.

Long gone are the days of a job for life – it’s more likely that we will have several jobs and careers throughout our lifetimes. That means in order to properly prepare people, our education system will have to become accustomed to more bitesize chunks of learning, enabling people to step on and off the education escalator while remaining in work. Ensuring the UK’s skills system is responsive to these changes is not a new concern, but in today’s economy, it is more important than ever.

What is clear is that colleges are ideally placed to help the UK rise to this challenge. Each year, further education colleges educate and train around 2.2 million people the length and breadth of this country. Not only are they important local anchors within their communities and work with business to meet local skills needs, but they have particular strengths in reaching out to non-traditional learners – such as those who prefer to study flexibly, locally and later in life – and thereby boosting social justice.

End the neglect 

That is why the CBI has been calling on the government to end the neglect of our further education sector. While it is wrong to think of universities as purely academic institutions, the lack of support provided to further education colleges has harmed our ability to create additional routes to high-quality and higher-level skills. After all, the needs of our labour market are highly diverse and meeting them requires investing in routes that appeal to those for whom a traditional, three-year university degree may not be the best option.

Realising this vision will require colleges to step up as well though. As the CBI’s Education and Skills Survey has shown, business perceptions of further education colleges can be mixed. Concerns persist around the responsiveness of colleges to the needs of business and delivery of training. Addressing this will require much more collaboration between colleges and employer. That’s why I am pleased to be a commissioner on the Independent Commission on the College of the Future. Only through working together can we ensure that programmes on offer are of high quality and tailored to the needs of the individual and economy, now and in the future.

For business, a successful college sector is one that is responsive to the needs of individuals, business and the wider economy. Let’s be clear: many of the building blocks for this are already in place. But by ending the neglect of further education and encouraging greater collaboration between business and colleges, we can establish a first-rate college sector that develops the future talent our economy needs while enabling people to develop their full potential in terms of knowledge, skills and capabilities.

Matthew Fell is the CBI chief UK policy director

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