Value of colleges recognised

Scotland's Colleges are increasingly being recognised for their important place in the social and economic development of our nation

Scotland's Colleges are increasingly being recognised for their important place in the social and economic development of our nation. As we consider how they can meet and exceed the expectations of the Government, it is interesting to take a look at how our neighbours in England view the role of colleges and further education - and whether we are getting it right.

It will come as no surprise that our further education policies differ dramatically to those in England. It's fair to say that, in both countries, colleges have broadly the same aim: to contribute towards a highly skilled, caring, well-adjusted and economically successful society. However, the strategy for how that is achieved is where the differences lie.

The fundamental contrast between the two systems lies in the role the respective governments see for colleges. In England, they are regarded as a component of the further education system, alongside private providers and schools. They are perceived as requiring further reform to make them more "demand led", and they now have a specific brief to focus on skills and employability, fitting in with skills academies and sixth-form colleges.

In Scotland, however, the Government recognises the wide range of social and economic benefits that the lifelong learning opportunities delivered in colleges can bring. Colleges' contribution to society is seen in much broader terms than just meeting employer needs. Indeed, they have been identified as having a "crucial" role to play in achieving the Government's vision for a successful Scotland.

The differences are partly a consequence of the diverse contexts in which Scottish and English colleges operate and which have changed increasingly since incorporation in 1992. Then and now, Scotland's colleges are seen as a community resource, frequently serving geographically disparate communities for whom they are realistically often the only provider of lifelong learning opportunities. As a result, they have tended to retain a public-service remit and are viewed as key partners in tackling issues and driving local and regional development.

After incorporation in England, colleges found themselves much more at the mercy of market forces, entering into competition with other colleges, schools and training providers. As a result, they frequently disengaged from their local communities, shaping their services through commercial rather than public-service considerations.

Recent developments in England, notably the introduction of the Train to Gain programme, are likely to drive this difference even further. The push in England is increasingly towards delivering an employer - rather than learner-responsive model, which is set to dominate funding of adult learning provision in the future.

In the meantime, in her response to the Review of Scotland's Colleges, Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop has called for colleges to realise their potential as "vocational education and training providers of choice for learners and employers and key strategic partners in their communities".

Colleges have an increasingly important commercial role to play in both countries. However, there is much to be said for also valuing their provision of accessible lifelong learning opportunities, and ensuring that at least a portion of this delivery is driven by learner, rather than commercial, needs. In this, there is much I believe our colleagues south of the Border could learn from the Scottish way of doing things.

John Spencer is principal of Inverness College.

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