The future of further education is turbulent, but full of opportunity
A sector that prides itself on giving people a second chance is perfectly adapted to seeing a challenge as an opportunity. So it was with an air of determined optimism that further education (FE) principals, managers and policymakers met in March to discuss what the future had in store.
The event, Further education in 2020: the challenges and opportunities over the next five years, hosted by the Guardian and sponsored by Zurich Municipal, involved a panel of three experts and an invited audience of FE professionals. After the panel debate, all the attendees divided into workshops to discuss the themes of diversification, links with business and new technology in more detail.
The seminar took place two weeks after the government announced cuts to the adult skills budget of £460m by 2016. These followed years of budget reductions, including cuts to college funding for 16- to 18-year-olds, described by Richard Atkins, president of the Association of Colleges, at its annual conference last November, as “unjust and unsustainable”.
The cuts have been so persistent that at least 50 colleges are in financial difficulties, said Nick Isles, deputy principal and chief executive of Milton Keynes College, and a panellist at this month’s seminar. “There’s not a lot of fat left,” he added.
Colleges need to become more entrepreneurial, according to Isles – not easy as this makes demands on staff to which they had not signed up. He described it as a process of moving “from funding to earning” and suggested it was “an existential moment for the FE sector”.
Tilden Watson, head of education at Zurich Municipal, said financial pressures were leading to more short-termist thinking. Managers were reacting to cuts by retrenching or taking more risks, and he predicted that crisis management would become the norm for all organisations.
“Most of our customers will suffer a crisis event every five years,” Watson said. He warned that new ways of working, such as technological innovations and globalisation, brought new kinds of potential crises – from cyber-security threats to pandemics. But he remained an optimist; those organisations best able to adapt and change quickly would still succeed.
Even more upbeat was Dame Asha Khemka, principal and chief executive of West Nottinghamshire College. She said she found it bizarre that whenever there were funding cuts or change in government policy, the FE sector started to panic. “When was the time when we didn’t have challenges?” she asked.
Dame Asha preferred to see it as an exciting time that offered opportunities to learn from others and find solutions, particularly through forming collaborations with local enterprise partnership groups, local authorities and other institutions.
All the panellists agreed that partnerships, especially with business, were the way ahead, although they recognised that getting employers more involved was a challenge in itself.
Isles said that it had become traditional in the UK since the 1980s to view skills training as not the employer’s responsibility. He argued that the coalition’s vision of a smaller state meant that this had to change and big organisations were waking up to the need to act by starting apprenticeship schemes. This was less possible for many of the small businesses that dominated the British economy, Isles said, so it was up to colleges to reach out.
In the breakout sessions, delegates discussed practical ways of doing this, including clustering employers around particular areas of the curriculum.
Tilden said Zurich Municipal had decided to get involved in skills training because it develops good talent and is positive from a community perspective. However, he warned that some of the overregulation and bureaucracy that went with apprenticeship training could undermine them.
Inconsistent policy was also a potential problem, according to Dame Asha. All political parties on prioritise maths, English, apprenticeships and traineeships, but the constant change of tack on how to achieve these aims had left little time to embed anything properly.
“There have been so many initiatives over the past three decades,” she said. “What we need to do is stick to one thing and work on that.” She would have liked the government to leave the GNVQ in place and allow the sector to develop and refine it over the years.
The relatively low esteem that apprenticeships were held compared with A-levels was one thing the panellists agreed had remained doggedly consistent.
Speaking from the audience, Patrick Craven, director of assessment, policy, research and compliance at City & Guilds, said parental attitudes were key: “Behind closed doors, if you say to people: ‘Do you want your child to go to university or take up an apprenticeship? They’d probably say ‘university’.”
Other delegates agreed that this was an issue, but suggested employers and educators were culpable too, with many schools reluctant to promote vocational routes and job adverts routinely calling for degree-level education.
Isles said it was important to demystify the apprenticeship brand and start talking about how doctors, lawyers and accountants have all had to undergo some form of training. “Everyone does an apprenticeship of one kind or another to get good at something,” he said. One group of delegates called for more research on the apprenticeship premium – the increase in wages or promotion that being an apprentice brought.
If managing the reputation of apprenticeships felt an old challenge, the difficulties of managing an institution’s reputation in the age of the internet felt very new. Watson warned that the speed and reach of social media could quickly destroy a reputation, and in a way that was difficult to rebuild.
While panellists and members of the audience agreed that new technology offered huge challenges – not least in working out how to use it without losing the personal contact so valued by learners – it was also potentially transformative. Dame Asha said technology offered a chance not only to teach young people in a way they found natural and enjoyable and to turn out successful digital citizens, but also to diversify colleges’ income sources.
“The future is turbulent,” said Isles. “But it is also full of fantastic opportunity.”
On the panel
Janet Murray (chair), further education journalist, the Guardian
Nick Isles, deputy principal and chief executive, Milton Keynes College
Tilden Watson, head of education, Zurich Municipal
Dame Asha Khemka, principal and chief executive, West Nottinghamshire College.
This content has been sponsored by Zurich Municipal. All content is editorially independent. Contact David Mills (firstname.lastname@example.org).