There are many privileges in my role at the Association of Colleges that I try quite hard to not take for granted, such as meeting and talking with students and staff, working with MPs, peers and ministers, and eating in college restaurants. I could go on. One of the greatest privileges, however, is spending time with college governing bodies. I’ve been to meet a couple in the past few days to present my views on the college landscape, trying to help them to think through their strategies, their challenges and their opportunities.
Commonly, the meeting will be an evening or a weekend to fit in with the busy lives of the board members, who all volunteer their time for free. The agenda is full and complex – financial concerns because funding for colleges is so tight and reducing at a time of greater needs, safeguarding, estates, curriculum reforms, new government initiatives, employer relationships, staffing (attracting and retaining skilled people is tough when pay has been hit so hard), partnerships, mergers and so on dominate. Despite this, what always strikes me is just how welcoming and warm the reception is.
I tend to spend time acknowledging the pain and the tough job they face, but balancing it with optimism and a focus on potential opportunities. It’s an increasingly tough balance to achieve given the funding challenges, but there is such passion, commitment and belief in what colleges do that even the bleakest prospect can be trumped by the transformational impact colleges have on so many people.
It is this that motivates people to put themselves forward to serve on governing bodies in the first place. It’s also what civil servants see when they visit a college and meet the staff and students and come back and say “I never realised….” It’s what makes colleges such inspirational places.
'Colleges are social assets'
Who they support in terms of ages and stages of learning, how they complement other educational providers and what they specialise in differs – some do more A levels, some more apprenticeships, others have more Level 3 technical, others more entry-level and Level 2, some have more or less adult provision compared with their 16 to 18 offer, or do more or less higher education and special needs provision. Those differences don’t matter if colleges focus on their own unique and often place-based purpose to help people transform their lives.
Colleges are social assets, vital to the communities they serve, and provide the best chance for thousands of learners, often offering the first real opportunity people will have to improve their skills, education and life chances. Yet too few people understand that and too few respect and support it. That needs to change.
What we need is for all of us who realise how important colleges are to proudly shout about it. Ours is a sector unlike any other, transforming lives in ways unlike any other – let’s be proud of that, and loud about it.
We need to make sure that everyone can hear, understand and respect what colleges offer. For all sorts of reasons, we have been too shy in doing that, but I’m hoping that that is changing and that the college voice will be stronger, more confident and more optimistic. It needs to be to ensure that more young people and adults can benefit from what colleges offer – realising ambitions and talents, transforming lives.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges