This guest blog marking Colleges Week has been kindly provided by Dr Paul Phillips, CBE, Principal & Chief Executive of the Weston College Group.
The Post-18 Review has the potential to create real opportunities for further education (FE) or alternatively to be a damp squib. Which will it be?
Philip Augar and his team face a huge responsibility in drawing up the road map for the future. Regardless, FE Colleges are already making major inroads into Levels 4, 5 and 6 provision and targeting a market that HE might otherwise pass by.
I am in the privileged position of being the Principal of an FE college which offers HE provision to Master’s level. We are now a designated college of further and higher education but are we guilty of stressing a divide between these two key sectors of education? I believe we are and are wrong to do so because FE is now embracing HE through either direct delivery or in partnership.
We have much to celebrate, our curricula are naturally merging and our sector brings a combination of vocational delivery plus scholarly research that is visionary, has impact and shows real value for money.
The Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Sam Gyimah, is in no doubt that there is a false divide. Our world is changing. My own college, Weston College has established University Centre Weston in the centre of Weston-super-Mare. It is a conversion of the old Winter Gardens. The concept was endorsed by Bath Spa University and the University of the West of England in Bristol.
We are seeing teacher exchange and a convergence towards sharing best practice. Foundation Degrees are complemented by honours top-ups. Appointment to our key posts are supported by the universities and new developments are debated and explored. As employers raise concerns over the shortages of specialist skills at Levels 4 and 5, there are successful initial bids across the UK, led in the main by FE colleges with university partners, to develop new Institutes of Technology. The pace is rapid. It’s not an environment for the faint hearted but symbiotic relationships that add value are coming to the fore.
It’s a great time for HE delivery in our colleges and every story is different. Trust must be proven and relationships need time to develop. But the stories of success show exponential travel.
The Weston approach is unique, but so are examples across the UK. In Birmingham, Hertfordshire, London, York, Derbyshire and indeed every part of England, innovative projects are occurring. FE students are winning awards once the sole remit of universities. They in turn are learning the apprenticeship agenda rules – a steep learning curve for any provider in today’s market.
Social mobility and mental health are major challenges for our learners in this new tertiary environment. It is something that is integral for FE environments, where inclusivity is key – whereas, dare I suggest, HE seems sometimes to have treated it more as a token gesture. [Editor’s Note: HEPI’s own reports on mental health can be accessed here and here.]
Mental health is key for us all. Transitioning from one phase of education to another is a huge step and we all have something to learn. Inspirational stories where there is real partnership between colleges and the university sector abound – they bring home stories of young people and adults who achieve against all odds. There are literally thousands of inspiring dynamic stories that illustrate learner journeys and skills achievements.
It is Colleges Week, so a time to celebrate the dynamism of these new tertiary partnerships. The Government’s skill shopping list is extensive and the ApprenticeshipLlevy is itself providing the catalyst for change. I can quote examples of winning bids for Levy provision where the bid itself is a joint approach between an FE college and university or a consortium of such institutions.
Further Education is also proving that it is a force to be recognised with in other ways. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has set the standard for rating HE. Aberystwyth University is ‘Gold’ as is University of Bath, but so is Weston College and Blackpool and the Fylde College etc, etc, etc.
In many cases, the degree and degree apprenticeship work of Further Education Colleges is more vocationally / employer based than some universities offer. It is rare for our sector to offer more pure-based degrees, but that’s no bad thing as we need to work together and complement other provision. What is also clear is that you cannot force such partnerships; they must be built on trust and a sense of reality. The best outcomes reflect joint commitment and tenacity from college and university alike.
I will conclude with a vision I have of a ‘learning village’ or a ‘learning community’ where schools, FE providers and HE providers work together in a geographical area to create seamless provision. It requires real commitment, but in North Somerset we intend at an FE skills level to start this model with higher education. We told Philip Augar about it and, as a pilot project, we believe it will have massive opportunities to change the landscape. As with Institutes of Technology it needs a revenue stream of its own to prove impact.