This blog was kindly contributed by Professor David Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor, London South Bank University
One year ago today we received ministerial approval for the designation of a new subsidiary, South Bank Colleges (SBC), to deliver further education. That same day, Lambeth College in south London merged with SBC, becoming part of the London South Bank University (LSBU) Group. This was the culmination of almost three years’ work with the Department for Education to establish a national pilot for an innovative corporate structure aimed at recognising the distinctiveness of further education and higher education whilst, from a student and employer perspective, providing an integrated approach to learning pathways, support and guidance.
For the University, this represented the next step in our work to create a Family of Educational Providers – an alternative approach to supporting learners through today’s complex educational landscape. In addition to the University and the College, the ‘family’ comprises a Multi-Academy Trust (South Bank Academies); our Passmore Centre for Professional and Technical Education which focuses on apprenticeships; and LSBU’s commercial arm (South Bank University Enterprises).
By bringing together this collection of like-minded but distinct specialist organisations, we aim to provide a genuine choice for learners between technical, vocational and academic pathways. At the same time, we can focus on the needs of individual students, ensuring that each one can build the portfolio of skills, experience and qualifications they need to achieve their ambitions. The model requires recognition of the importance of each sector – schools, further education, higher education – to people and place and regards each entity as a specialist in its own right. Not better or worse, but different. A diversity to be celebrated.
With the Government showing a renewed interest in further education and the College of the Future Commission developing recommendations for what we will need from our colleges from 2030 onwards, our one year anniversary seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the challenges and opportunities we have faced so far in providing this integrated educational model.
Much of our initial work with colleagues at the College has been to address some of the results of the long-standing under-investment in further education. Principally by creating a safer environment for staff and students by addressing various health and safety concerns within the building. We also supported the College finance team in the ongoing process of reducing its running deficit by establishing more robust financial management and have implemented group-wide HR systems, risk management processes, internal and external audit services and finance systems. Alongside this, we are moving towards the implementation of service and system collaborations in ICT, compliance, catering, procurement, and estates development; and have already established direct management links across the respective outreach and recruitment teams in order to help grow learner numbers at the College. At the same time, staff have benefited directly. Many are now participating in the wide range of continuing professional development opportunities alongside their university colleagues. And the lowest earners have been brought up to the London Living Wage in line with the University’s policies.
However, whilst these operational changes are increasing effectiveness across the Group, they are secondary to the benefits for the learners. There is an acknowledged problem with the Level 3 to Level 4 transition in England. In 2015/16, of the 1.1 million learners in further education that completed an eligible learning aim, only 10 per cent went on to an apprenticeship or study for a qualification at Level 4 or higher.
Collaboration between the two sectors has helped us further understand the higher education needs and aspirations of potential students. This has enabled us to improve their experience, help smooth transition and develop joint access and participation planning to support access to university from the College. This has already seen a nine per cent increase in Lambeth College students progressing to higher education. The College has also been able to assist the University in supporting NHS staff seeking to access to higher and degree apprenticeships in nursing. Many do not have the required English and maths qualifications and need additional support to achieve them. The College has extensive and excellent provision in ESOL English (English for speakers of Other Languages) and maths provision and is able to augment the University’s work by providing additional expertise and resource.
One of the biggest impediments to progression from Level 3 to Level 4 is a lack of clear pathways. With this in mind, we are using Standard Occupational Classifications (SOC) analysis to align course offers (including apprenticeship programmes) at the College and University into clear career pathways. This does not mean attempting to force every student at the College into higher education. It’s about ensuring that, for those who wish to follow a technical route, there are clear and accessible pathways into much needed Level 4 and Level 5 qualifications as well as degree level study and, indeed, beyond. In doing so we can widen participation and tackle our skills shortages.
It has been a challenging but exciting year, and it will no doubt take some time to realise our vision fully. But new opportunities arise week by week. Joint discussions with employers focus on their needs and those of their learners, untrammelled by any jostling for income. Working together has opened up new funding opportunities. Progression to higher education has increased; so too has the take up of adult education. We are now looking at progression links between South Bank Academies and South Bank Colleges. Those students with an interest in more academic courses can focus on A-Level routes at the Academy; those with a more applied focus can take BTECs or apprenticeships at the university technical college; and in the near future, those who wish to take a more vocational route will also have the option to transfer to the College.
But one thing stands out more than anything else. The goodwill and willingness to collaborate amongst the further education and higher education staff has been truly remarkable. This is in turn generating immense and exciting creativity and I am sure that were this approach to be replicated elsewhere it has the power to introduce some new and productive energy to both higher and further education.