It’s Sunday morning and around 30 people have made it along the banks of the Yarra to the plush and swanky PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) offices in Melbourne. We’re in a stunning room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the city and river on a beautiful sunny spring day. I suspect that I’m not the only one wondering whether it was a good idea to have accepted the invitation to what will turn out to be a stimulating and fun day.
We’re a diverse bunch, with people from around the world, assembled for the World Federation of Colleges and Polytechnics' (WFCP) bi-annual World Congress, which starts the next day. Our hosts, PwC, have designed a day and a half programme before the congress commences to explore the leadership challenges that colleges and polytechnics (TAFE in Australia) face and how the World Federation can help.
The day starts well as we begin to discuss the challenges that colleges face in each country. It’s certainly reassuring and not very surprising that there is so much in common. Slightly depressing, perhaps, that the purpose, position and status of colleges still dominates so much of our discussion. Even more worrying is an underlying feeling that governments don’t seem to recognise what colleges do and even less what they could do to meet social, cultural and economic aims and ambitions.
The future of colleges
As the day moves on, the discussions deepen, and we focus more on the approaches made by policymakers to what is variously called VET (vocational education and training), TPE (technical and professional education) or simply voc-ed. There’s so much in common here, too, and not all in a good way.
The consensus is that all too often, governments have a narrow and short-term, instrumentalist view of TPE. The narrowness relates to the lack of broad educational under-pinning; compounded by the sense that the training is simply to help people to get into any jobs as soon as possible; and based on a belief that all that’s needed is to find a qualification for every job and deliver it to people so that we can match qualified people with vacant job roles.
Qualifications don’t always work like that, of course, because they are often simply a signal to employers, rather than a direct linear connection, particularly over time as qualifications become less important than experience in work.
More alarmist views
A great presentation from Jim Stanford at the Centre for Future Work in Australia leaves us pondering what the impact of the fourth industrial revolution might be. Jim manages to dampen fears about rapid loss of jobs and replacement of people with robots in great numbers and debunks some of the more alarmist views of recent times. His presentation does, on the other hand, help us all recognise that there are important decisions which will be made over the coming years about who will benefit and who will lose out as technology marches on.
Following this, the fears for many in the room are that technological change will sharpen the divide between the skilled and the unskilled, with literacy and numeracy needs holding people back even more than they do now.
Two big themes emerged by the end of the day. The first was how important it is for us to develop a new vision of the purpose, place and status of colleges. A grand vision, harking back perhaps to the rapid establishment of mechanics’ institutes which started in Scotland in 1827 and which grew through the mid-19th century in many countries. In the state of Victoria where we are having these conversations, there were over 1,200 mechanics’ institutes running in the second half of the 19th century. They were a response to the industrial revolution then, and many have mutated into the colleges and universities of today; a heritage and history which we should celebrate, and value more than we probably do.
That vision needs to be backed up with a new understanding of how lifelong learning and TPE can support people to understand and adapt to the changes in this fourth industrial revolution. We started to explore what the foundation and lifelong learning skills and abilities are that every citizen needs in the 21st century. For sure, that includes literacy, numeracy and digital skills, but it must be more than that to give people the confidence, capabilities and capacity to be able to thrive in our changing labour market. So much more than reductionist training for people to get any job now.
The real excitement came as we discussed the vision and began to speculate about how this revolution will change our understanding of work (four-day working weeks, perhaps?), leisure and of retiring into longer, healthy and fulfilling lives. Helping people and society to deal with more leisure time will be equally important as changes in the workplace skills required. For both, we need colleges focused on the public good, supporting people, communities and employers to design and develop great places to live and work. That’s the sort of grand vision we need.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges
The World Federation of Colleges and Polytechnics World Congress 2018: Preparing for the Skills Future is being held in Melbourne from 8 to 10 October