What are the big issues facing colleges this term?

Enrolment, Covid catch-up and government levelling up policy are key concerns for college leaders, says David Hughes

David Hughes

What are the big concerns for FE college leaders this year? Association of Colleges chief David Hughes sets out the major questions that need answering

The start of a new academic year is a good time to take stock, look ahead and plan for all the things likely to happen over the year. That was not so easy last year, with Covid creating enormous uncertainty, but it certainly feels like forecasting the next year is a bit safer now (crossing fingers in hope).

Back to college: The key concerns for FE leaders

For colleges, there are eight big sets of issues that might take some thinking, planning and acting time.

  1. The first is the annual issue of enrolment of students. Always a time to worry, because relatively small swings in overall numbers or in the mix of courses that are popular or unpopular can create big financial and logistical challenges. This year is even more difficult to predict and already we are hearing from colleges that they are seeing unusual and potentially worrying patterns. With results days much earlier, lots of students getting higher grades and the overall cohort of 16- and 17-year-olds rising every year, there is likely to be a new pattern of recruitment. My heart goes out to college leaders dealing with this, because the uncertainty will not begin to clear until late September or early October, meaning many weeks of stress.
  2. The enrolment stress is compounded by the unanswered question about the impact that education loss has had on students starting or returning to college this autumn. Nobody knows enough about this, and yet hundreds of thousands of students will start college having had enormous disruption to their education for two academic years. Many will never have sat a public exam but will probably have to next summer. The glaring inequalities in educational achievement exposed in the results this year will heighten questions about what extra support students will need, what catch-up will be necessary. How will teaching need to be adapted? The assessments and diagnostics that colleges carry out will give us some understanding of how deep the need is for education recovery and what the wider impact has been on students, but not until October. Colleges will have been dealing with the impact for weeks before the government decides what resources, if any, to devote to it in the spending review.
  3. November will bring the UN Climate Change Conference – COP26 – in Glasgow, and a welcome focus on the climate crisis facing the world. Students in colleges in recent years have time and again set this out as a top priority and colleges have been making use of the Climate Change Roadmap that we developed with the university sector to make suitable changes. But expect there to be new calls for more concerted and urgent action and some new commitments in the spending review that might come shortly before or after COP26.
  4. Another "BIG government announcement" expected in the autumn (but don’t be surprised if it shifts into 2022) is the Levelling Up White Paper. It's hard to know what this will bring, but if colleges are not central to the solutions to place-based and people-focused inequalities then it will be a big missed opportunity. This is such a high-profile plank of the Johnson administration that we are all awaiting something significant, with resources to match the level of rhetoric.
  5. Then there is the spending review, which needs to be both comprehensive and offer a three -ear rather than a single-year settlement. If it is for three years, then it will set the tone for this administration, by setting spending for beyond the fixed general election date of May 2024. All bets are off for what the tone of the chancellor will be, let alone his decisions on deficits and borrowing. With growth in the number of young people alone resulting in a £570 million pressure in FE, college leaders will be working hard to ensure that their local MPs understand the need for better investment in colleges and their students.
  6. The whole year will see different aspects of the Department for Education reform agenda trickling out. The FE White Paper from January had many aspects that need huge amounts of work and consultations – including funding and accountability, the Lifelong Loan Entitlement and HE reforms after the Augar review. Then there is the Skills Bill, which will reach the Commons around the autumn after a lively passage through the Lords (which still needs to be completed).
  7. One of the more worrying reforms that colleges are anxious about concerns qualifications. The DfE has big plans for the whole set of qualifications that colleges use for non-A-level learners, at Level 3 as well as Level 2 and below. The roll-out of T levels will continue at a sensible pace, with more colleges involved this year, but the pace and scale of the changes being proposed with existing qualifications looks heroic and very risky. As well as that, there are some difficult decisions about exams and assessments for summer 2022 (including what the grade profile will be for GCSEs and A levels, contingency plans just in case exams don’t happen and wider questions about the fairness of the system for all learners).
  8. And finally, there is a long list of things that college leaders have to focus on in any year – continuous improvement, quality, student experience/enrichment, governance, collaboration, local planning/priorities, Ofsted inspections restarting, financial viability, meeting the needs of the labour market and communities, employer engagement and partnership, and the list goes on.

Balancing all these issues is never easy, but we have great leaders in colleges who seem to manage it year in, year out, and I am confident they will do so again. Focusing on the students, making sure their experiences are the best they can be, is a simple but effective strategy. We’re lucky to have such dedicated governors, leaders, lecturers and support staff in our colleges.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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