A challenging view of the shape of things to come

5th March 2010 at 00:00
Alan Thomson reports on Colleges 2020, a new book attempting to make sense of FE in the decade ahead

It would have been relatively easy not all that long ago to predict what further education would look like 10 years hence.

Up to the early 1990s colleges did what colleges had pretty much always done. Then came incorporation and things were a little harder to predict, as colleges became more entrepreneurial. But despite the impetus for change, the sector stuck broadly to what it knew best, namely adult education and skills, and 16-18 education.

Seventeen years later FE has become a far more complex business. It has diversified significantly into demand-led, work-based and professional learning, higher education, 14-16 learning and apprenticeships.

FE also operates in the most dynamic part of the education sector, responding rapidly and directly to skills needs that are changing at an exponential rate as a result of new technologies, recession and recovery, and to underlying shifts in the global manufacturing landscape. Demographic changes in the UK, driven by declining birth rates and an ageing population as well as immigration and economic migration, are also challenging FE.

Colleges 2020 is, therefore, both a brave and timely undertaking, being published amid huge economic uncertainty and just before a general election.

The book, published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in conjunction with the Association of Colleges (AoC), is essentially a collection of essays each looking at a different aspect of FE.

In his preface, David Blunkett, the former education secretary, says: "The FE sector was once regarded as the Cinderella sector. That perception has changed, thanks in no small part to the AoC, and we now have a sector that is growing not only in confidence but also in achievement.

"That FE has the self-confidence to look creatively at its own future over the coming decade is a welcome sign of that strength."

Martin Doel, chief executive of the AoC, says in his foreword: "This may seem like a difficult time to be thinking creatively about the future. But this time of belt-tightening is also an excellent time to think about our purpose now and in the future.

"Politicians of all parties need to see that ours is a sector that is providing creative solutions for the future, whether it is in educating young people or adults, providing basic or advanced skills, or delivering learning traditionally or with new technologies.

"Such strength of purpose is at the core of this book, and we hope that it provides the basis for a real debate about the future of colleges, and how we can build on our strengths and develop new ways of working."

The essay authors are drawn from a variety of backgrounds, from architecture to academia. Here, FE Focus summarises each chapter's key predictions and observations.


Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges

- Money switched into areas like apprenticeships and out of more traditional education in colleges.

- Decline in the number of 16- to 18-year-olds will leave some colleges struggling to maintain their income against increasing competition from schools, academies and private training providers.

- Some local councils will press for local funding systems which would bring an end to FE's national funding formula.

- Public funding will be less important for colleges which seek to raise more through tuition fees. Loans for FE students may be necessary.

- Merger, federation and collaboration are likely to continue as colleges seek financial safety in size. Greater size may help colleges secure capital funding from the private sector.

Open for business: can colleges become sites for entrepreneurship?

Terry Warburton, a director of Broadleaf Associates and a consultant for the Association of Colleges' Enterprise Education in FE initiative

- Innovation should be stimulated through networks and forums made up of providers and business groups.

- Greater involvement of entrepreneurs in colleges.

- Professional development for lecturers in delivering enterprise- orientated education.

- Colleges should be helped to engage with larger organisations and companies.

The social value of further education and training

J D Carpentieri, senior policy and research officer at the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC) at the Institute of Education, and John Vorhaus, director of the Wider Benefits of Learning Centre and co-director of the NRDC

- Much of what FE achieves in terms of improving people's prosperity, well-being, health, social behaviour and civic participation is poorly evidenced, overlooked or unrecognised.

- By focusing FE on merely economic ends policymakers may be reducing the sector's capacity to deliver more broad-ranging benefits.

- Need for more robust data on the impact of earnings and well-being.

- Colleges "crystallise" the notion of community.

The global challenge

Jill Rutter, head of policy and communications at Refugee and Migrant Justice

- Significant migration over coming years will present a range of challenges to colleges. Emergence of the global college.

- Colleges will play an increasing role in promoting social cohesion and integration for immigrant groups.

- European Union students will provide income and help some courses remain viable.

- Curriculum and teaching for ESOL courses must change to meet the needs of students with limited prior education.

- Emigration may threaten course completion rates and raise demand for language courses.

- College principals should voice institutional commitment to diversity and human rights and encourage debates about immigration.

Fresh directions for teaching and learning in further education

Alan Brown, professorial fellow at the University of Warwick's Institute for Employment Research

- Refocus FE away from competence development based on skills levels to skill development across the life-course.

- Adopt a more expansive view of skills, knowledge and competence than that enshrined in the National Qualification Framework.

- Need to fully exploit technology but make it subservient to learning and education goals, and not set goals just to get the maximum use out of technology.

- FE tutors must offer more support to help learners make sense of the mass of material available electronically.

- Increase the scope for the professional judgment of tutors to decide what works to avoid turning education into a mechanical process driven by technology.

Challenges to the designers of the future college

John Bryan, founder of Bond Bryan Architects

- More college buildings will have to compare with the best modern workplaces.

- More students will be educated in colleges.

- Colleges may have to use their facilities more intensively.

- Colleges may be forced to share facilities and services.

- More innovative solutions to capital programmes including private sector partnerships must be found.

- Colleges should be designed to create shared central space like an atrium, with public facilities such as shops, cafes and hairdressing salons.

- Lectures will be pre-recorded and delivered on demand.

Colleges in their local context

John Widdowson, principal of New College Durham

- Colleges will play a key role in economic development.

- Need for more local partnership paving the way for a new approach to college civic responsibility and engagement.

- Local employers will continue to rely on colleges to deliver the skills they need.

- Regional training partnerships could become test beds for national applications.

- Colleges will provide a vision for "people-shaping".

US community colleges and lessons for British further education colleges

Kevin J Dougherty, associate professor of higher education at Columbia University's Community College Research Centre, Teachers College

- UK FE could learn from the US's decentralised system of governance and finance, allowing for great flexibility at local level.

- But the downside is a risk of significant inequalities in spending between states.

- In terms of widening access to higher education, only half of students who entered US community colleges in 1995 had gained a degree six years later.

- More than two-thirds of teaching staff in US community colleges are part-time.

Conclusion: a view from outside the college system

Tony Dolphin, senior economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research

- Cuts in spending may exceed 20 per cent over the next 10 years.

- Colleges must find alternative sources of income through fees.

- Colleges will be more commercial.

- Likely to be fewer colleges, but not necessarily fewer students.

- Students and employers paying higher fees will be more demanding.

- New skills accounts will see students exercise more control over where they study.

- Possible expansion of two-year degrees.

- Entrepreneurial skills will feature more in college curricula.

- Non-vocational and non-academic provision may continue to suffer as colleges respond to market demand for skills, although the pendulum may have begun to swing back by 2020.

- A more commercial college culture may loosen institutions' links with their local communities.

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