Post-16 - Colleges must 'stop bitching' and start pitching ideas

3rd January 2014 at 00:00
US and UK can learn from each other, says American expert

Colleges must concentrate their efforts on improving their efficiency and effectiveness, and not simply "bitch and moan" about funding cuts, a further education leader has claimed.

J Noah Brown, president of the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) - which represents 6,500 officials working across 1,200 US community colleges - also warned that schools must do more to prepare their students for the post-16 sector.

The first international skills survey published in October by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development made depressing reading for countries across the globe. All but one - Japan - were found to have significant numbers of people with only the most basic levels of literacy or numeracy.

The US in particular had every reason to be disappointed in its performance, being ranked 20th out of 22 participating nations for numeracy. The UK, in 16th place, fared little better.

Mr Brown said this was a "relatively fair reflection" of the current levels of educational attainment.

"We haven't kept pace (with the rest of the world)," he said. "Countries that are investing more in education per capita are ramping up the educational skills levels and the occupational relevancy of their citizens. They are getting a leg up. I think that in the UK and the US we kind of fell down on this job."

However, Mr Brown insisted that because of increasing convergence between education policies in the two countries, greater collaboration could help both the US and the UK become forces to be reckoned with on the global stage once more.

Colleges in the US "desperately" needed to know from their UK counterparts what it was like to live "in a world under a microscope", Mr Brown said. Meanwhile, UK principals would be keen to learn about the US experience of "living in a very entrepreneurial, autonomous free world", always "on the hunt for resources", he said.

"We are virtually at the point of intersection. There's a tremendous opportunity for dialogue and understanding," he added.

Although sweeping education budget cuts have affected the post-16 sectors on both sides of the Atlantic, Mr Brown called on providers to tap into their expertise and make their provision more efficient, rather than harking back to the "halcyon days of the 1960s and 1970s when money grew on trees".

"If you talk to presidents, the common refrain is that you have to do more with less...This is the wrong way of looking at it. You can't be successful doing more with less by any economic standard, so that's an exercise in failure.

"(We need) to think about how we can do less with more, which means to look deep within our institutions and understand what the resources are that we currently have and how we can really use those resources very effectively to achieve higher results for students."

Lessons could be learned from the world of business, Mr Brown argued. "We have to think like entrepreneurs: what makes entrepreneurs successful? First they start with what they've got. They don't sit around and bitch and moan about what they don't have," he said.

The ACCT president also expressed reservations about the long-term impact of MOOCs (massive open online courses) on education. "Too often we get distracted or seduced by the new thing," he said. "MOOCs are just the latest sexy innovation. In my opinion, it's premature to know what they mean or whether they will be useful in the long run."

More important, Mr Brown said, was helping schools and instilling resilience in learners to make them more "college-ready", rather than being expected to rectify underachievement stemming from students' school years.

"While community colleges are still this great beacon of hope for people who want to get into post-secondary education, it's not like we don't have expectations about skills and academic proficiencies," he said.

"We need to work with high schools and teachers to help them understand what those standards are and begin to better align the teaching in middle and high schools around that kind of curriculum so that by the time (students) graduate from high school, they are college-ready.

"We have students coming in who are taking courses willy-nilly, don't know what they're doing or - even worse - have expectations from college that are completely unrealistic, or so badly aligned with their basic skills and competencies that of course they are bound to fail."

To combat the problem, many US community colleges are developing orientation programmes for their new recruits similar to those used in universities.

But Mr Brown sounded a note of caution to vocationally orientated institutions that attempted to emulate university structures rather than focusing on meeting the needs of employers.

"Over time, (community colleges) have built academic structures that largely mirror universities. We've got deans, we've got liberal-arts degree programmes," he said. "It's tragic when students earn degrees and certificates but the jobs for which they've trained have long since gone away."

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