What a difference a decade can make. Back in 2020, post-16 education and training were in a mess, with no vision or strategy. Aside from higher education, the sector was suffering from a decade of neglect and funding cuts. The 2010s were bleak times for colleges, with even announcements of funding freezes welcomed with open arms, because of the threat of further cuts.
Times were tough not only because of a lack of funding but also because the myriad complex and frequent policy shifts did little to reassure people, and because of the low regard politicians seemed to have for colleges. The 2020s were not all honey and beer, but as we hit 2030, it’s good to reflect on an upcoming decade of investment, growth and development.
A new relationship between colleges and government
It all started in the spring budget of 2020, in which the chancellor confirmed his party’s manifesto commitment to invest £1.8 billion in college capital. That money was used wisely, with colleges able to transform the poorest parts of their estates while investing in the technology that has transformed learning as well as work over the past 10 years. In fact, the announcement turned out to be the beginning of a new relationship between colleges and government. A relationship of policy co-design and shared destiny, of trust and understanding, of respect and support.
Steadily over the early 2020s, the funding rate for 16- to 18-year-olds and for adults rose, ahead of inflation, to close the gap with schools and universities. It now feels fair, although colleges could always do more with more, of course. That funding position was hard-fought for, with Treasury needing some persuasion as well as a range of reforms. Most of these colleges were only too pleased to commit to: better pay for college staff, a professional and trained workforce, stronger CPD for lecturers, more peer support for struggling colleges and colleagues, sharing of expertise on curriculum, working to deliver specialisms as part of a regional post-16 plan and collaborating with other colleges to enhance pathways.
Perhaps the most controversial change in the 2020s was the decision taken early on to bring colleges in England into the public sector. In many ways it was the obvious step for the government to take – it had already decided that colleges were a "vital part of the national infrastructure" and that it wanted to work more closely with them. Bringing them formally into the public sector was still a bold move, though, and many college leaders were nervous about it. But it has allowed for a closer relationship, with more grown-up discussions about investment and policy.
Strong partnerships between colleges and employers
All well and good, you might say, but what about the impact of all of this? It’s a fair question, because new buildings and technology and better-paid staff are not ends in themselves. The good news is that the education, training and skills offer from colleges is better than ever and more employers are now working closely in long-term partnership with their local college.
For 16-year-olds, the transition from school is easier. There are new partnerships in place with most schools that ensure that every young person experiences the sort of technical education offering that colleges routinely deliver, well before they make decisions at 16. That has resulted in a wider range of students, across the whole achievement spectrum, entering colleges to undertake T levels, apprenticeships and other technical and vocational qualifications. The number reaching level 3 by 19 has increased significantly, not least because of the commitment to a full three years of funding beyond age 16.
Aged 18 or 19, college students can access a full range of options, with many moving on to universities for residential degrees, and many progressing on to level 4 and level 5 higher technical courses while at work. All of this was made much easier by the decision to restrict apprenticeships to young people and to progression from level 2 to level 3, with the new suite of higher technical levels providing the new progression routes beyond. Giving colleges the central role in that progression from levels 2 and 3 to level 5, in a planned approach at regional level, unlocked the potential of thousands of young people and adults who had previously been left behind.
The obsession in the 2010s with resilience and character has now thankfully diminished, with a more positive focus on widening experiences beyond the classroom. Experiences which help build confidence and self-awareness and ultimately develop more agile citizens who have agency and will help to shape their own and our society’s future. Studying at college is now a more full-time experience, with abundant opportunities for extracurricular activities in sport, arts, social action to name a few.
Employers have noticed how this results in young people with better communication skills, greater ability to work in teams and better understanding of problems in the round, and who are willing to face up to challenges with confidence. Employers are working more in partnership with colleges to support the transition to work for young people as well their continued education and training. They also increasingly view colleges as the first port of call for help with business change, technology adoption and innovation as well as workforce development. Increasing numbers of studies show that productivity is higher in businesses working in partnership with a college.
The College of the Future
There will never be enough money in the public sector. There is always more that could be delivered. But in 2020 I would have taken the position we are now in and I am pleased that at AoC we played a part in helping to make it happen. Our support for the independent Commission into the College of the Future was central to this, with its report in 2020 being both insightful and influential.
All these changes sit alongside the wider shifts in our society and economy. Brexit has left the lexicon and is now part of our history and the campaign to rejoin is simmering away in the political manifesto bottom draws. I suspect it will hit a party manifesto sometime soon. If it does, it will sit alongside a prominent place for colleges as vital parts of the national infrastructure, as vehicles for inclusive local growth and as drivers of economic and social success.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges