What colleges will look like in 10 years' time

Principal Gerry McDonald imagines how the college sector might change for the better over the next decade

Gerry McDonald

Colleges of the future: The way the FE sector is perceived is changing, says Gerry McDonald

Predicting the future is a fool’s game. But we all do it, just the same. Our innate resistance to change is pushed aside by the desire to imagine the world as we would wish it to be. So here goes. My time to be foolish.

The college of the future, maybe 10 years hence, will be tangibly different to that which we know today. Here’s why:

The relentless competition for post-16 students, particularly in urban settings, will have settled into a more measured marketplace. Competition and freedom of choice will still exist but on a much fairer basis. Gone will be both the micro school sixth forms that relied on cross-subsidy to survive and the constant advent of new providers. In their place we will have a genuinely collaborative educational landscape that promotes local joint working, shared staff development and curriculum innovation. Career pathways will be easier to explain and navigate.

Read more: Commission on the 'college of the future' unveiled

More views: Now is the time to set a vision for colleges

Background: Meet the man defining the college of the future

Colleges of the future

Our college estate will have been rebuilt and will be able to fully embrace the technological challenges of vocational education in the 2030s. Paradoxically, Brexit will have helped here. The skills crisis of the early 2020s was so intense that there really was no alternative but to upgrade the often tired facilities we had grown accustomed to.

The price for this investment will be maybe better described as a dividend. Colleges and employers will have taken collaboration to a new level, co-designing facilities that enable smooth knowledge transfer across an integrated education and work ecosystem.

The new investment won't stop there. A fresh settlement will have aligned college and school pay and brought fresh talent into the sector. Realistic revenue funding will have allowed programmes of study to fill out and reach parity with other countries where vocational and technical education is also valued. Restored enrichment funding will have led to broad societal benefits whereby students feel connected and enfranchised through educational opportunities that genuinely allow them to build prosperous futures.  

But the journey will not always have been easy or without its controversies. To become better understood there will be a need to redefine FE’s purpose more radically than could have been envisaged back in 2019. Some things will be given up. Few colleges will sponsor schools, take students aged 14-15 or deliver higher education but their share of the 16-18 market will have increased every year and adults will see their local college as an essential part of their lifelong learning and training journey.

By the end of the 2020s it will have become clear that the dialogue between the sector and the state is now conducted on an entirely different basis. The seeds of this will have been sown more than a decade previously and its fruits will be evident everywhere. Civil servants will no longer ask what FE does or what they can expect in return for better funding. Both are self-evident. Few policymakers will have no direct experience of FE and all will routinely champion its accomplishments. Our sector will spend its time focused on the challenges facing our local communities and our wider economy, not any more on how it will survive another year.

Foolish? Maybe. But this kind of future is altogether a better place to be.

Gerry McDonald is group principal and chief executive at New City College.

The Independent Commission on the College of the Future is asking the central question of what we want and need from our colleges across the four nations of the UK from 2030 onwards. The commission has now published a progress report, which aims to reflect the many conversations it has had so far and to stimulate and provoke more ideas. It welcomes your feedback through an online survey as it works towards a final report with recommendations for each of the four nations for publication in the spring of 2020.


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Gerry McDonald

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