Don’t let the FE title fool you — higher education is far from the sole preserve of universities, despite what a government review by Sir Andrew Witty seems to be saying, explains Jack Carney.

In spring this year Sir Andrew Witty, chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline and Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, was asked by government to carry out an independent review of the role higher education plays in economic growth and regeneration.

He was tasked with looking specifically at a higher education infrastructure that could deliver the government’s Industrial Strategy.

In the summer, the preliminary findings and emerging themes of the Witty Review (“Universities and their communities: enabling economic growth”) were published.

Disappointingly, the report was exclusively concerned with the contribution of universities rather than all institutions that offer higher education.

The Manchester College, a member of the 157 Group, was surprised by the omission of any mention of higher education within FE, the higher education route chosen by almost 50,000 learners a year.

This was a missed opportunity to show the truly unique and positive offer to both learners and employers from higher education in FE and took the initiative to submit a response to the review’s preliminary findings.

We have a voice too, and one that should be listened to in any debate on economic growth and industrial strategy”

The delivery of the government’s Industrial Strategy is a fundamental part of the Witty Review, yet there is no account taken of the key role that our sector already plays in employability and working with businesses — when it comes to engaging with employers locally and enabling economic growth, FE colleges have no equal.

The review’s preliminary findings see a central role for research-based universities in leading the strategy, with a growing distinction between these and the teaching universities, which Sir Andrew appears to have seen becoming increasingly private sector.

Sir Andrew looks at how universities can work with local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and other local organisations that can drive economic growth, such as small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

And our sector is way ahead of the field in its ability to engage with SMEs, including at the higher education level.

The preliminary report also seems to point to a diminished role for LEPs in the delivery of the industrial strategy, in favour of research-based universities, which seems to be out of step with the government’s policy of channelling an increasing proportion of funding through LEPs.

There may well be ways in which LEPs can be improved and adopt best practices, but what they need is our support and active involvement to ensure that there is joined-up thinking between local need and local solutions.

Could there not be, for example, an highly productive relationship in which universities play the role of economic research partners of councils alongside FE colleges, who are experienced in community engagement, employer links and innovative delivery, all of which support the LEP local regeneration agenda?

The fact is that the higher education sector is an extremely broad and varied one, and the Industrial Strategy’s chances of success are reliant on all parts of it, not just the very top
in terms of academic research, vital though that is.

Research universities, teaching universities, university business schools and higher education provision in FE colleges all have a role to play.

The preliminary findings of the Witty Review have raised a number of questions, and the concerns from our sector are certainly not the only ones that have been expressed: universities have their own issues, and these are all important debating points.

But we have a voice too, and one that should be listened to in any debate on economic growth and industrial strategy.

We firmly believe that it is up to us — our sector must take the initiative and widen the debate to make sure the FE voice is heard.

Jack Carney, principal, Manchester College