Now is the time to set a vision for colleges

The Commission on the College of the Future is asking all the right questions, writes David Hughes

The Commission for the College of the Future is asking all the right questions, says David Hughes

Last week was an important one for the Commission on the College of the Future. A roundtable discussion with the lead officials from all four nations, with commissioners and international experts, started off a very constructive couple of days of debate, discussion and consideration. That roundtable was followed by a lively seminar, with an impressive audience drawn from across the range of partners the commission has pledged to work with.

Both events provided a rich array of issues, questions and ideas for the full commission meeting the following day. Perhaps more importantly, as chair Sir Ian Diamond pointed out, they provided ample evidence for all of us that this really is a critical moment for colleges across our four nations and that the central question the commission is asking is the right one: what do we want and need from the college of the future? It is a disarmingly simple question but one that now attracts the attention of more people and institutions than ever before.


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Setting a vision

What has struck me more than anything in recent months is that the commission has the opportunity to set a vision for colleges over the next decade, which all the key partners can sign up to and help achieve. It is a vision that can be owned by everyone, worked on by all of us and that places colleges at the heart of every community across all four nations. Crucially, it will refocus colleges towards a truly central role in public policy. That was clear from the involvement of senior officials from all four governments, working with the commission and wanting to co-produce solutions and policies, understanding the landscape and the prize if we get this right.

There are five initial takeaways for me. First, it is important to take a systems view of the future rather than a market approach. There are complex interactions between colleges and their students, communities and employers, which are too difficult to leave to market mechanisms.

The collaboration between colleges, working together to meet the complete set of needs in a place, will require a different paradigm from the competitive one we have been working with, particularly in England, for the past couple of decades. As one of our international experts put it, we need to collaborate locally to be able to compete nationally. The learning across the four nations on this is invaluable, as policy has diverged over recent years on how close to government colleges are in each nation.

Second, within that more collaborative environment, we need a new set of relationships between colleges, universities and schools. There is an important space for each of them in an educational ecosystem that is focused on meeting needs across all ages, all stages and all types of education, training and skills. This must also involve an urgent refocus on lifelong learning opportunities as significant changes in the world of work risk hitting more vulnerable workers.

Co-production

The third is that the best chance we have of getting the college of the future that we all want is to co-produce it, collaborating with all of the key stakeholders – including, crucially, with governments across the four nations, as well as employers, students, staff and college leaders. This is how we create the best system, one that recognises the expertise each player brings as well as drawing out the tensions inherent in further education, including between the more immediate needs of employers and the longer-term interests of people, students and communities, thereby achieving both economic and social goals through supporting people and employers.

The fourth big issue is that we need better data to support this new system. It’s hardly surprising that Sir Ian Diamond, the newly appointed chief statistician, is bringing his longstanding expertise and insight to this part of the commission’s considerations. I’m expecting that his leadership can help us progress rapidly on this over the coming months.

Finally, it was Alison Wolf who reminded us at the seminar that we must get the funding right. After a decade of neglect, a corner was turned this month when the college-educated chancellor, supported by the college-educated secretary of state for education, announced a £400 million boost to college funding – a great start to the much larger and long-term proper investment that’s needed.

I finished the week full of optimism that this impressive group of commissioners, led with energy by Sir Ian Diamond, and working closely with officials, will set us on a path towards having thriving colleges of the future in every community. I know that college leaders are straining every sinew already to be the best they can be, despite the system around them and the lack of investment constraining and inhibiting their impact. With the right investment, a collaborative set of relationships and a constructive policy environment, it’s exciting to imagine how much more every college will be able to do to make all four nations better places to live, study and work in.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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