A federation of colleges would help our sector to 'come of age'

21st August 2009 at 01:00
Comment: Asha Khemka OBE

Colleges, like the country, find themselves in particularly challenging times. We have all witnessed a tightening of the public purse and, of late, an increasingly loud demand from the public for our services, and more importantly our public bodies, to demonstrate their worth and responsiveness to their "constituents".

Government policy in relation to further education reflects this shift from the national to the local that will place an even greater demand on us to deliver more for less. There is an increased expectation for us to play our part in revitalising the UK economy and ensuring community cohesion and regeneration in a way that has never been done before.

We have all done well in meeting a local mission, responding well to the needs of individuals, and in transforming the lives of those individuals. However, colleges have often found it difficult to work at a high strategic level with regional development agencies, local authorities, employers and the Government to plan a coherent and sensible offer across regions that, in turn, will improve the skills of our nation. In many cases, this is not through want of trying. But, with more than 300 colleges within our sector, all too often agencies and employers do not want to be seen to favour one over another, and so very little moves forward.

As a sector, we are close to a tipping point, where we will either sink beneath the sheer weight of the new Business, Innovation and Skills department or finally get to prove the essential role we have to play in the future prosperity of UK plc. With funding bodies, funding regimes and commissioning frameworks changing, now is the time to review the operation and organisation of colleges to ensure that scarce public funds are directed at the front line.

The sector and the Government have grown tired of merger - so this is not a plea for more of the same. In any event, with a few notable exceptions, merger tends to combine one or two colleges within the same geographical area. Consequently, it does not solve the problem of too many independent colleges fishing in the same pond.

I would propose that we consider a federation structure - in other words, more formally bonded colleges than our current "collaborative" structures but still enabling individual colleges the freedom to respond to local need.

A federation would be a grouping of colleges under a single vision and strategic direction across a region or sub-region. It would be led by a small executive board and administrative hub, with each college having its own principal and governing body. They would be responsible for the day- to-day management of individual colleges and delivering a strategic response to local need. Colleges could develop their own subject specialisms, while the federation as a whole would be perfectly placed to sponsor academies and work closely with regional development agencies on matters such as regeneration and inward investment.

Quality assurance and quality improvement would be co-ordinated centrally within each college, with managers responsible for developing peer review across the federation and for accrediting qualifications, whether in partnership with other agencies or through its own accreditation system.

Accreditation powers would also enable greater flexibility and creativity in developing higher education within the FE system. The size and scope of HE provision in federations might allow for the establishment of more HE centres such as we have here at West Nottinghamshire College, providing access in areas where progression is traditionally low.

Removing duplication and competition among colleges would enable them to work collaboratively to create specialist vocational centres, boasting world-class facilities to meet the needs of employers on a regional, national and international stage.

The model could have further benefits - not least the potential for shared services such as learner records, finance and human resources, thus generating a significant efficiency that could be reinvested in learners and learning. It would enable colleges to engage in a much more meaningful way with regional development agencies, local authorities and others, and would enable a planning of provision across a sub-region or region in a way that is currently not possible.

Such a federation would be far better equipped to respond proactively to employers' needs - providing a single point of contact for businesses, while ensuring the future skills needs across the region are met.

The new model would enable a rationalisation of estate, freeing up money to re-invest in high-quality, high-impact learning facilities for the future. If the current furore around college capital funding has taught us anything, it is that we will have to rely far more on ourselves and not the public purse to generate funding for capital development in the future.

Such models are used for the organisation of colleges very successfully across the globe. The United States and Ireland are just two examples of where large federations of colleges have made a real difference. There are many similarities between the mission and purpose of colleges in the US and the ones here.

But let's not get carried away. There are also many differences - not least that local politics in the US are far further forward than ours. However, we are seeing a move towards regionalisation. Whether we will see our regions take on the law-making and tax-raising powers to mirror those in the US is still very much open to debate. Yet we should learn from our American and Irish counterparts, where college "districts" have been particularly successful at attracting funding, establishing partnerships and driving real community regeneration.

Such a model would require a change to our legislation to enable its success. In the school sector, federations have started to make a real difference to quality, results and efficiency. Maybe it is time to consider seriously whether this is a model that could enable the sector finally to "come of age".

  • Asha Khemka OBE, Principal and CEO, West Nottinghamshire College.

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