With Skills Minister Matthew Hancock having announced plans for a nuclear college, Mike Robbins looks at whether he should just have been grateful for the existing FE offer and used it as an industry model.

he government has announced proposals to build new specialist colleges to support the skills training required for HS2 and the nuclear industry, but we have seen how an established training institution can evolve, adapt and innovate to deliver the new and bespoke skills required for a major civil engineering project.

The nuclear new build at Hinkley Point C represents a highly-ambitious project of international significance; the proposed construction of two new nuclear reactors will necessitate a workforce of 25,000 across the ten years of the build, and clearly there is insufficient existing capacity within the whole of the South West, let alone Somerset itself.

A major programme of community engagement, skills development and training is clearly required, and with associated infrastructure works that include highways improvements, campus accommodation, park and rides and wharf and jetty improvements, the question is — why build a brand new, purpose-built college as well?

To do so would be to ignore the wealth of experience and expertise already available in the FE sector, particularly when it comes to science, technology, engineering and
maths disciplines.

Partnership can lead to significant private investment in facilities within colleges to deliver skills development and training on a huge scale

While close collaboration between industry and the education sector on a project of this magnitude has simply not happened before, the Tier 1 contractors connected with Hinkley C are wholeheartedly embracing the fact that colleges already have the mechanisms in place to respond quickly and flexibly to industry.

This type of partnership can lead to significant private investment in facilities within colleges to deliver skills development and training on a huge scale, and enabling them to continue with their core offer to young people even in the light of reduced government funding.

The impact on the local communities that colleges serve can be substantial — in the case of Hinkley C, for example, one third of the jobs are intended for people within a 90-minute commute, and the involvement of a coalition of South West colleges has led to aspirations being universally raised.

New ways of working often require new delivery and assessment methods, and the private investment afforded by industry partnerships enables colleges to look far beyond the reaches of traditional classroom delivery.

Realistic working environments for specific construction skills — such as formwork, plant operations, excavating, scaffolding and concrete pouring — can be created using industry-standard plant and equipment, on a scale that simply would not be possible if colleges were wholly reliant traditional funding streams.

And colleges can work together to pool expertise, share facilities and franchise programmes, creating a UK-wide skills base that will serve industry for decades to come.

An early alliance with major civil engineering projects is not without risk for colleges, particularly in terms of up-front investment, but it can prove to be a very sound strategy. The benefits to colleges and the communities they serve are clear; but the benefits for the projects themselves cannot be underestimated either.

The vast array of skills training required is being placed firmly where it belongs — in the hands of proven experts who have often been recruited from the industries themselves — and early engagement means that the preparatory work has already been completed in readiness for the green light.

It is debateable whether a new college could overcome teething problems and hit the ground running, even assuming practical considerations such as location, planning, recruitment and marketing could be overcome.

It is also worth noting that the eventual employers on major infrastructure schemes come from far and wide, and to focus on a single training provider in a single location would seem inappropriate and inefficient — a widening of opportunity to optimal numbers of people is absolutely key to future success.

We would like to see government maximising the potential of the many excellent colleges that lie along the route from London to Leeds or near the areas where nuclear new build and operations exist.

Mike Robbins, principal, Bridgwater College