'Get inspired - attend a college graduation'

Anyone who doubts the power of lifelong learning should see for themselves what impact it can have, writes David Hughes

A college graduation shows how FE institutions bring the community together, writes David Hughes

I’ve got my own tale of two cities to share with you this week from personal experiences in a cathedral city (which will remain nameless) over the past couple of months.

On a sunny and hot day in July, I was one of many proud parents watching my eldest walking on to the stage to receive a scroll tied with pretty ribbon from an eminent man in flowing velvet robes. She was graduating, of course, and much as I tried to control my emotions, I was just like every other parent, bursting with pride.

Two months later, I was in the same city, but this time in a very old and sacred building on a less balmy, more blustery early evening. I was privileged and honoured to be the be-robed one handing out the scrolls and shaking the hands of the graduates.

College versus university

Two successful and delightful celebratory ceremonies, the first at the university, the second at the further education college. Both with graduates who had undoubtedly worked hard to achieve their academic success and who deserved this rite of passage. Both with graduates who ranged from the nervous and unsmiling as they entered the stage, to those beaming and oozing confidence.

There were many similarities, but there were also some marked and noticeable differences. It’s the contrasts that are so topical, given the focus being given to post-18 education by the government (through the Post-18 Review of Funding and Education), the Labour Party (through the National Education Service) and the Liberal Democrats (through the work it is carrying out on learning accounts).

At the Association of Colleges, we have published our own proposals on a more balanced approach to post-18 education, with a strong focus on wider participation and helping to support more adults to achieve to higher levels.

It’s also timely given the consultation by the Office for Students on access and participation. The higher education sector has been spending hundreds of millions of pounds every year to improve access, widen participation and achieve fairer outcomes. The results are less than staggering, with often too much focus on 18-year-olds rather than older students, and with the gaps between more and less advantaged students persisting, despite higher overall participation from both groups.

Community celebration

It’s important to understand the context for the two graduations I attended. Around 10 per cent of higher education students study in FE colleges. Students tend to be older, live closer to where they study, have higher contact and teaching hours and study for qualifications that are more obviously labour market-focused. Perhaps because of that, college students also tend to score their experiences strongly in the National Student Survey and have good job outcomes. 

There were three main differences which I share, not to criticise, deride or denigrate the university, nor its graduates, but rather to promote the need for greater balance of investment and focus between the two sectors from government. The differences also highlight the need to develop incentives for more collaboration, and particularly for place-based policies which allow different institutions to be able to offer a more comprehensive offering to the community.

The starkest difference was just how much more diverse the college graduates were, particularly in terms of age and minority ethnic background. The diversity would have warmed the hearts of anyone committed to lifelong learning and widening access and participation. That diversity was then amplified in the audience. There were children, spouses, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, employers, friends. All helping to show how one student’s achievement ripples out across a community. The university graduation felt politer, restrained and ceremonial; the college felt more vibrant, exultant and widely-owned. The sense of community celebration and lifelong learning was palpable in the audience as well as the graduates at the college ceremony.

Flexible learning opportunities

All of that makes sense because the college graduates were achieving across a broader range of courses at Levels 4, 5 and 6. They were more likely to be part-time students and they lived locally and were part of the local community.

Whatever the future holds, I hope that there is room for both universities and colleges to deliver what they do best. Helping young people to progress at age 18 will remain very important but there needs to be much more focus on increasing the investment in flexible opportunities for adults to participate in higher education.

Our economy and our employers will find it increasingly difficult to recruit skilled people as the number of EU nationals moving here slows and as people retire from the workforce. The only solution is to make it easier and more "normal" for adults to have flexible learning opportunities to fit in with work and life. Colleges and universities can deliver that, but the funding and policy is sorely lacking.

I’m sensing that there is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that we need lifelong learning opportunities and that colleges and others will have to work collaboratively to achieve it. I’d encourage anyone who doubts the power of lifelong learning to get along to a college graduation and see if for yourself. It’s infectious, inspiring and energising.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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