Like it or not, colleges are part of Big Society

4th March 2011 at 00:00

As colleges brace themselves for the full impact of the Government's spending cuts, it would be easy to become deeply cynical about the Big Society, which many see as mere window dressing for these austere times. The reality, however, is that colleges are at the very heart of the Big Society, whether they realise it or not.

Prime minister David Cameron talks about community empowerment, opening up public services and social action. Yet as far as the FE sector is concerned, it has always been our vision to harness the creative power of our communities and transform the lives of our students. This means sending them out into the world believing they can make a difference and be successful - either in their careers, by setting up their own businesses and creating employment, or by generally being good citizens.

But more than that, the Big Society is about empowering students to take a role in their local community and exposing them to new experiences, which raises their aspirations and self-confidence.

Yes, the abolition of the education maintenance allowance, significantly reduced enrichment funding and the rise in university tuition fees will add to our challenges. But while this will require colleges to demonstrate resilience and creativity, we have shown time and time again we possess these qualities in abundance.

Volunteering is seen as a fundamental part of creating the Big Society and colleges can play a crucial role in this. The reductions in enrichment funding mean we will need to think creatively about ways to broaden our students' experiences. Supporting the activities of others or a particular cause, whether in the local community or further afield, promotes citizenship and social responsibility - both vital to providing students with a balanced education.

More colleges should consider opening up their facilities to special interest and community groups such as the University of the Third Age. This shared commitment to community learning, with a focus on enrichment rather than achieving formal qualifications, is a living, breathing example of the Big Society in action. Likewise, we must also engage with young people not in education, employment or training - the most difficult group to reach and retain.

Crucially, the Big Society gives colleges an opportunity to really demonstrate their community leadership role. Many are already doing this successfully and are recognised as key strategic players in the communities they serve. But still we can do more. We must work even more closely with councils, community groups, employers and other strategic partners to regenerate our communities through education and skills. And we should all be demanding a place on the emerging local enterprise partnerships and forging new and powerful alliances with local stakeholders, bringing different parts of our communities together.

The choice is simple: either we carry out our role in isolation or we work collectively to take on this challenge and prepare our communities to be better places to live and work. We need to re-dedicate ourselves to our mission of building self-confident communities where our citizens have the right to self-respect, dignity and well-being. This means continuing as a sector with even more rigour, tenacity, innovation and creativity.

We all have a part to play in the country's economic recovery and in achieving prosperity. The cutbacks are here and we have to get on with it. Either we say the Big Society is a cover-up for other things and keep that negative mindset, or we all get involved to reverse the damage. If colleges take the second road, we will be making a difference.

Asha Khemka is principal and chief executive of West Nottinghamshire College.

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