What do you want from the college of the future? That’s the simple question that the new Commission on the College of the Future is asking of a wide range of people and institutions across the four nations of the UK.
The simplicity of the question is liberating. Other commissions have tended to consider the whole system of education and skills or more nebulous questions about what skills will be needed in the future. They are big and important questions, but they can easily become overwhelming. This commission has the safety net, when things look complex, of asking – how will that impact on what a college does and how it does it?
That clear focus certainly helped to make the first meeting of the commission a lively, informed and exciting discussion and debate. Given that the commissioners come from all parts of our society, the first meeting spent a lot of time exploring the context in which colleges operate and the drivers for change.
Read more: What will colleges look like in the future?
The future of colleges
That context is well-documented in a whole range of reports from many quarters, which have described the changes we face over the next decade. The commission will have to work hard to understand these changes without getting bogged down in them – aided by the simple focus on their impact on colleges.
The approach that the commissioners are taking is to build on the positive, rather than starting from a deficit model. Whilst accepting that “things can be better”, the spirit of this commission is that there are all sorts of great things happening in colleges already across the four nations, and across the world, which we want to discover, understand and replicate. There was also a consensus that the commission comes at an opportune time, with keen and eager stakeholders wanting to address the same question and wanting simple solutions. This promises to be a commission that has a long-lasting and profound impact.
For me, there are three conditions that the commission needs to hang on to in its early stages. Firstly, commissioners must work hard to maintain open minds and a strong focus on finding solutions that already exist, as much as dreaming up the new and innovative. Secondly, the commission must engage with a wide range of stakeholders and do more than simply listen. The process of engagement we have agreed on implies commissioners sitting alongside others to understand what they do and how they do it to reproduce the best approaches, ideas, solutions and outcomes. Thirdly, the commission will need to engage college leaders and stakeholders across all four nations in a process of co-design and co-planning. Not a process of pronouncing what others should do, but more one of articulating the consensus of what will work and how.
A shared vision
We’ve made a great start in the first meeting and in the breadth of stakeholders who have warmly responded to the launch. But in the spirit of openness and honesty, it is important to set out some of the tensions that will challenge the process and the impact of the commission. Here are my top five:
- How to agree a unifying vision of the college of the future in a sector that is so diverse – in terms of size, scope, context and ambition. Good communication often requires simplicity, but we know how complex the college landscape is.
- How to agree the main or most important public policy benefits colleges should try to achieve – given the impact that they can have on policy ambitions such as developing a more productive society, supporting employers to recruit skilled people, creating more cohesive and tolerant communities, supporting a more active citizenry and so on.
- How to ensure that the commission takes a relentlessly UK-wide approach, and resists speaking to solely the English experience. The four nations element is a key strength of the commission, and must be harnessed, alongside exploration of overseas experience and expertise.
- How to describe the relationship between colleges and other parts of the education system – including universities, schools, private providers and new entrants, such as YouTube and Facebook – and the collaborative environment that will get the best of every player.
- How to maintain a confident, ambitious agenda for a decade hence when current funding and regulation are making survival such an important goal in and of itself.
I am confident that the commission will make recommendations that are challenging (to governments, employers, colleges and others), whilst bringing people along with us in the process. More than anything, we need recommendations that will be implemented.
The commissioners were clear in the first meeting that the goal is not simply a clever, glossy and well-written report which has a long list of recommendations for colleges and stakeholders. The goal is that by the end of 12 months, every college and every stakeholder shares the vision, the dream, the design and the solutions for the college of the future. Only then can we be confident that the college of the future will thrive and, with it, so will our communities, people and employers.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges