You can view challenges in two ways – as problems or as opportunities. When 157 Group members met recently as part of our strategic review, our focus was definitely on the latter. We all know that the future for colleges will be significantly different from where we are now.
In order to shape that future, we must make ourselves critical to government policy on productivity, devolution and the efficient use of public finances.
The productive capacity of the UK economy lags far behind our major competitors. Unless we have a workforce with high-level professional and technical skills, we will not change that position. Colleges are best placed to refocus their curriculum on these higher-level skills, especially in key growth sectors such as engineering, the digital economy and energy.
High-level apprenticeships will need genuine co-creation with employers if they are to be valued as prestigious and meet the UK’s economic needs.
Existing models of delivery and assessment will need to be challenged. They must focus on an area of need that has largely been neglected – the “technician” level 3, 4 and 5 provision that we believe can only be delivered cost-effectively through colleges.
Getting this right will require much more meaningful engagement with leading employers.
We already know that they are ready to work with us. Employers across the board are looking for colleges which can harness technology in a dynamic way and be radical in their approach to curriculum design so that together we can respond to the productivity challenge.
Such an approach will provide a national solution, but our colleges will collaborate to ensure it is deliverable locally and accessible to all.
So, we are working to develop new thinking on what a network of institutes of technology might look like.
As part of this we can change our narrative from that of the education Cinderella to the dynamic solution to our country’s economic needs, through more positive engagement with both established authorities and emerging commissioners of educational services.
Similarly, as income streams become more diverse and customer expectations are heightened, we will need more sophisticated leadership skills.
Colleges will need to be clear about their market and their own unique selling propositions, and leaders must be better equipped to assess risk and to operate efficiently.
Cost saving is not the same as cost efficiency – and our members will collaborate to make sure that resources are directed into the core business of delivering a highly skilled workforce for the future. This will mean developing more radical models.
We also think it is time for colleges to take charge of their own efficiency benchmarking. We will be working hard to ensure that the metrics against which we are judged are both accurate and robust.
As our review continues, one thing is already clear – that 157 Group colleges are ready to work together, and with all stakeholders who can help us, to become an indispensable part of our national economic success.
Ian Pretty is chief executive of the 157 Group of colleges