The government's pledge to increase the number of apprenticeships by 3 million over the next five years is well known. Now a document from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis), Reviewing Post-16 Education and Training Institutions, sets out ministers' other plans for the FE sector. These focus on productivity and economic growth; in particular, the government is looking for better responsiveness to local employer needs and economic priorities.
In terms of how this is to be achieved, the document unveils proposals for a countrywide programme of area-based reviews examining post-16 provision. These reviews will be led by steering groups composed of a range of stakeholders, including college governors, local education providers, local authorities and so on. Each steering group's job will be to examine educational provision in the area, looking at whether it is meeting the needs of students and employers in driving up productivity and growth.
The reviews will begin by analysing local economic and educational need in the context of a tight fiscal environment. In cases where a local college or colleges are deemed not to be meeting local needs, the steering group may well come up with recommendations for increasing efficiency, including collaborations or mergers. Although these recommendations will not be imposed, the document makes it clear that colleges will be expected to take action and that future funding will depend on how they react.
To many colleges this has probably come out of the blue, and moreover they have little time to come to terms with the proposals: Bis intends to conduct the first reviews in September. The question that colleges therefore need to grapple with – and quickly – is “how do we prepare for this?”
There are two very obvious actions that every college ought to be seriously thinking about, if they haven’t already. First, they must be able to articulate to the steering group the value they provide to their local economies. My company, Economic Modelling Specialists International, recently produced a White Paper in conjunction with the 157 Group of colleges titled The Economic Impact of Further Education Colleges. In it, we made the following claim:
“Colleges generate a wide array of benefits, many of which are not fully appreciated: learners benefit from higher lifetime earnings; society benefits from avoided social costs; taxpayers benefit from an expanded tax base; local businesses benefit from increased consumer spending; local employers benefit from a more productive local workforce.”
It is likely that all colleges will agree with this statement, but knowing the value you provide is not the same as having hard evidence to prove it. In terms of the proposed area reviews, colleges must be able to provide their local steering groups with the kind of detailed information where – quoting actual figures – they can say: “This is how much we impact students; this is the value we bring to the local workforce; this is the return the taxpayer gets back from its investment into our college.”
Colleges that arm themselves with tangible figures on their economic impact are the ones that will be most likely to persuade the steering group that they are meeting the needs of their local areas.
The second action that colleges ought to be taking, given that the area reviews are set to start from “an analysis of local economic and educational need”, is to put in place robust labour market information. This should show that they have taken steps to understand the needs of their local labour market and that they are responding adequately to those needs.
Again, colleges with solid labour market information in place, specific to their local community, are likely to impress the steering group the most.
The Bis document ends by stating: “We hope that local areas will see this as a great opportunity to shape provision in a way that meets the skills needs of the country, both now and in the future.” Although these area reviews might well be producing a sense of trepidation in the sector, colleges should see them as an opportunity to demonstrate that they are a vital part of the lifeblood of their local economy, and that they are adequately responding to local economic demand.
By taking steps to articulate their value to the local economy, and by accessing robust local labour market information, colleges can go into these reviews confident of persuading the steering group that they really are contributing effectively to productivity and local economic growth.
Anthony Horne is head of further education for Economic Modelling Specialists International (EMSI)