Why FE collaboration is vital for economic recovery

Colleges are more used to competing than working together – but we're seeing great collaboration, writes David Hughes

David Hughes

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I think I have Mr Samuels to thank, although, at the time, I’m pretty sure that my behaviour in his classes suggested that I would never be grateful. Mr Samuels taught me A-level economics, some time ago at college. He was a good teacher, but economics and I didn’t really get on too well. I think it stemmed from too much time learning about the perfect market and not enough time in what even my teenage self felt was the real world. That says more about me than it does about Mr Samuels, of course.

Whether he intended to or not, he gave me a lifelong suspicion of people wanting to introduce "market mechanisms" into public services. The history of marketisation in education is a big subject, which lots of others have written about. Ewart Keep is worth a look, not least his FETL report which he wrote with us at the Assocation of Colleges.

Ewart describes the fundamental policy design choice that governments have between, on the one hand, resource allocation through markets and rational choice and, on the other, a planning and systems approach. Most countries (or regions therein) run a system – for example, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Germany, France, Finland, Sweden, New Zealand – often with elements of contestability within them. He then describes experience of the leading marketeer – Australia as a disaster, with major fraud, massive problems about quality of provision, and a huge decline in overall levels of learning.

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The evidence is overwhelming and has been at the heart of the debate in the Commission on the College of the Future, where the experiences in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland suggest that England really does need more systems thinking. Expect that to feature in the final report of the commission this autumn.

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All of this came to mind when reading the Colleges West Midlands Prospectus for Capital Investment last week. Here is a piece of work in which collaboration has been at the forefront of collective action by the 21 colleges, which support over 250,000 students. The prospectus is an honest and ambitious attempt to set out what will work for the area’s people and employers, supporting the elected mayor’s plans for inclusive economic growth.

The colleges in the West Midlands are not alone in taking this collaborative approach, but it’s important to recognise that it is in stark contrast from colleges more used to competing than working together. Over the coming months, I expect this theme to crop up time and again from the Department for Education and the education secretary as they develop their plans for a post-16 White Paper which has collaboration and systems thinking at its heart.

Meanwhile, there are four areas where we urgently need a collaborative approach to support recovery from lockdown.

The first is in the curation and creation of online materials and the supporting work to understand the pedagogy needed in colleges. The next academic year will be dominated by a blended approach to learning, with college students expected to be online more than before, and face-to-face less. Across the 244 colleges in England (and with neighbours in the other nations), there is enormous expertise, great materials and lots of knowledge. Sharing it now, quickly and without concerns about giving away a competitive advantage will be to the benefit of millions of students.

The second area is in helping to maintain the widening participation agenda in higher education. With social distancing, it’s likely that some students will be put off moving away or travelling long distances to university for their HE. What better time for colleges and universities to work collaboratively to offer those students, particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, a hybrid offer for the 2020-21 academic year? Notwithstanding the impact of the new student number controls, a new collaboration might forge new pathways for people that meet their needs better and soften the potential losses to universities and colleges in the same actions.

Thirdly, there is a great opportunity for collaboration on strategic investment by the government in key areas such as carbon net-zero, infrastructure projects and health and care. These are likely to be central planks of the government’s recovery plan and will require businesses to adapt and colleges to deliver new skills to thousands of people. These are areas where hard-to-fill vacancies were growing before the crisis, so we know that lack of the right skills could be a major hindrance to progress. Planning that together now would secure pathways for young people struggling in the labour market over the next few months and prepare people for the jobs opened up by the investment. It needs a collaborative and planned approach to work, though, because this is not something the market will conjure up.

My fourth area is related to the length of the recession we have just entered. Nobody knows how long it will be before the economic recovery arrives and jobs need to be filled. Whatever the gap, we need urgent work to help school, college and university leavers to prepare themselves with new skills and training. A local approach, sector by sector, is needed in which employers work collaboratively with colleges to design programmes helping young people and adults prepare for the jobs that will need filling in the future.

The risk is that colleges start to lay-off lecturers over the summer because of their weak finances. Capacity to deliver reduces and the number of students studying and training in key areas of the economy drops. Six or twelve months later, as recovery begins, employers find it impossible to recruit skilled workers and subsequently blame the colleges, schools and universities.

After decades of competition, 21 colleges have shown us that collaboration can work. Let’s hope it’s contagious and government and employers find out that they can do it, too. We’re ready and willing to be part of it nationally and locally. For a recovery that works for everyone.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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