No need to panic over a reformed college sector

14th December 2012 at 00:00
There is every reason to be optimistic about its role in developing the nation's future skills base

The college sector is being reformed and it would be reasonable to anticipate a refreshed focus on sector activities and greater clarity on national expectations of college delivery. The current pain should have that particular gain.

There is a new dynamic emerging, in that expectations should reflect regional as well as national and local needs. Legislation is under way, "planning" chairs are in place, boards will be established or confirmed; local conditions are being respected. There are fascinating processes ahead.

For those anxious about the future of the college sector, you should be comforted. Away from the noise of structural reform, college work continues. The core business of a college will remain: to secure the future skills base of the nation. We should be confident of that. We should also be confident that the reformed sector can build upon modern college traditions of responsiveness, flexibility and innovation.

Since the current college system was established a generation ago, the value of skills development has been heightened in political consciousness - having the right skills base is recognised as a prerequisite for economic health. It needs to be right in terms of capacity and capability, with the correct balance between vocationally specific and essential general skills.

The reformed college sector will need to continue this progress in three ways. Work on reinforcing the value of skills development is not complete; there is work to be done and, as the Gove reforms down south tell us, there always will be. Second, we need to sustain the modern relevance of our skills base and we should never get complacent about that. And third, the reformed sector needs to recognise that it does not have a monopoly on skills development; if it is prepared to accept that, it could have a more prominent, confident and influential role.

Historically, we have suffered from a poor regard for educational provision focused on skills development. I recall being engaged in the development of degree provision, in which content related to skills was passed on to local FE colleges who were better able to deal with the repetitive production-line tasks we envisaged. The "skills" part of the course was regarded as training and not worthy of the attention of degree providers whose role was to build knowledge and understanding.

There are few mindless tasks in today's workplace; I am not sure that there ever were many. A changing world has brought new perspectives on skills. As one commentator put it recently, "knowing that" has become less important than "knowing how". We talk of skills for learning, life and work being at the centre of educational experiences. We are dragging the concept of apprenticeships into contemporary times and they are becoming an attractive alternative to full-time course attendance.

We have made considerable progress and we have some way to go. At a conference on creativity and innovation, John Swinney, the cabinet secretary for finance, employment and sustainable growth, talked about the strength of our higher education community and the work in moving ideas out of "academic land" to employment opportunities. He is right. But his contribution lacked balance. The capacity for continued development of workforce skills deserved equal billing.

The reformed college sector has a job to do in raising the profile of the significance of skills development and the specific contribution of its institutions. We haven't yet found a way of ensuring college contribution is a regular and serious part of public discourse. We need to keep trying.

There exist processes by which colleges come to terms with future needs and translate these to college provision. Generally, these processes seem to work and we are getting better at preparing for the future with good strategic work, for example, in support of the renewable energy industry.

Employers are an essential part of the process, providing views on their longer-term skill needs. I often wonder whether employers, sometimes overwhelmed by current survival, can provide the quality of strategic input required. The quality of employer input should be examined and the new regions should be in a better position to make use of available data and intelligence around the system.

While there is a convenience and practicality about boxes, some things just won't fit in. Skills development is one of these - it is a systems responsibility. Colleges do not have a monopoly and neither should they have.

However, given the scale and diversity of provision, colleges should have a more prominent role in influencing policy on skills development. Too often, colleges have been afterthoughts in the minds of national bodies progressing issues of major concern. Part of that is due to poor quality of knowledge and experience about the college sector. Some of it may be due to a perception of colleges as "suppliers" of provision rather than "shapers". A little of it might have been a corporate college voice progressing institutional rather than collective positions.

Whatever, Scotland's learning system is all the poorer if it doesn't take advantage of the achievements and experience of colleges. Likewise, benefits to colleges through fuller engagement within the system are significant. For all of us, there is much to learn from others and we need to get better at that.

When all these new structures are put into place; someone might ask, "What's it all for?" The answer lies in a version of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign phrase. "It's the skills, stupid". Bill Clinton was elected.

John McCann is a freelance consultant and continues to progress college contributions.

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