Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Colleges are critical to the civic agenda too

  • 22 July 2020
  • By Lord Bob Kerslake

Today the Independent Commission on the College of the Future has published a new report ‘People, productivity and place: a new vision for colleges’. This blog contains an excerpt, authored by Lord Bob Kerslake, Chair of the Board of Governors, Sheffield Hallam University, Chair of the Civic University Commission, and Chair of the Civic University Network Advisory Group.

Our colleges and universities are part of the fabric of our communities. They are places which are not just in their communities, but are formed out of, shaped by and for their communities. Now, as communities face unprecedented economic and social challenges in the wake of Covid-19, this civic role of colleges and universities has arguably never been more important.   

For too long, however, further education has been under-valued, under-funded and under-loved by government. In a recent HEPI pamphlet I co-authored with Professor Sir Chris Husbands and Natalie Day of Sheffield Hallam University, we argued that the higher education sector is enhanced by a strengthened further education sector, and that colleges needed a more equitable and stable funding supply in order to ensure a more vibrant and comprehensive post-18 education system.

There are some positive signs, with recent funding injections for FE Colleges, but there is still some way to go to address this imbalance. As we await the Skills White Paper and the long overdue response to the Post-18 Education and Funding Review (the Augar Review) in England, it feels timely for colleges themselves to reflect on their future through this Commission and to be ambitious about their role in the economic and social recovery.  

In this, I welcome the sector’s efforts to reflect on, and to amplify what colleges bring to their communities and to the public good, and how this might be developed. I led the Civic University Commission which challenged universities to re-shape their roles and responsibilities to their communities. The Commission’s findings highlighted the importance of active engagement with a civic vision and strategy, ensuring a proactive rather than passive approach. Unsurprisingly, I would argue that a similar exercise of strategic reflection would be valuable to our friends in colleges as well.  

The Civic University Commission provided a much-needed mirror for universities to reflect more honestly on their role and responsibility to their region. At Sheffield Hallam University, where I chair the Board of Governors, we found that to be truly civic, we needed to be more positive and proactive in our local partnerships, particularly with the further education sector, to ensure a more connected and coherent local educational ecosystem. This means ensuring that both college and university partners are involved in trusted, honest conversations about regional education and skills needs. It also means working together to drive higher levels of participation and skill formation, with greater ease of navigation for students. 

This is something that we are proud to be doing already, with The Sheffield College and others, as part of our collective commitment to serving the economic, educational, and social needs of South Yorkshire. We also recently announced the establishment of a Regional Skills Council to drive connectivity and collaboration across the region working with universities, further education colleges as well as business and government representatives. Through the network we will work together to confront the significant skills challenges in our region with ingenuity and innovation and to promote more locally focused partnerships to navigate and address skills shortages and educational disadvantage.

We at Sheffield Hallam were also very pleased to be awarded the honour of leading the Civic University Network. The Network will work to support the growing civic university movement by sharing best practice, developing a peer review scheme so that universities increase their civic impact, and connecting universities with other sectors, including further education, so that we can work more effectively together in our localities.  

For colleges, as for universities, the longer-term challenge will be to ensure that this civic role is hardwired into the fabric of institutional cultures, outlooks and collaborations, as well as the system that they operate in. There is much that universities and colleges could do together as part of this civic mission, alongside schools and other anchor institutions, including the NHS and local authorities. Given the significant economic and social turbulence ahead, it is vital we do. This is important for our immediate recovery, but also to ensure we are best able to face some of the longer-term challenges, such as climate and demographic change, which will remain long after COVID-19 has passed. 

I am a passionate supporter of a new vision for post-18 education in the UK. Strong Further Education and Higher Education sectors working together in the best interests of the learner.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *