Decades of policy turbulence have left a sector that is resilient but not necessarily forward-looking, and this needs to change, says Ruth Silver

All three major parties have launched their manifestos, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats committing extra funding to colleges, while the Conservatives pledge to ‘give Britain the technical education it has lacked for decades’. All recognise FE’s critical role in improving Britain’s low productivity.

This attention is all very welcome, of course, in a sector subjected to continuous reform over several decades, and which has seen its funding cut and its curriculum narrow.

In tough and unpredictable times, it is gratifying to see politicians finally groping their way towards a genuine vision for the future of a sector they have often struggled to properly understand or appreciate.

It is crucial that the sector and the politicians responsible for it are forward-looking in their thinking. There is no doubt that FE and skills currently face a complex array of issues, from area-based reviews to localisation, which rightly absorb the attention of its leaders. But it is increasingly clear that fundamental new challenges are emerging, which can only be addressed by seeing beyond the day-to-day concerns that have, for many years, been a barrier to far-sighted sector leadership.

Our sector is bright enough and bold enough

This is not to point any finger of blame at sector leaders. Decades of restless policy turbulence and ministerial churn have resulted in a sector that is resilient, flexible and seriously good at stretching resources – but not necessarily used to scanning the horizon for the trends that will shape provision in the decades to come.

That is why the latest report from the Social Market Foundation and the Further Education Trust for Leadership, called ‘Rising to the challenge: the further education and skills sector over the next decade’, matters.

It outlines some of the key competitive challenges FE and skills will face, and proposes a number of ways in which the sector might make a place for itself in a diverse and increasingly competitive market.

These challenges include increased competition from schools and universities as budgets dwindle and EU student numbers decline, the changing role of employers in driving the skills system, and the development of educational technology.

To these we might add the UK’s ageing population and the changing face of a labour market increasingly characterised by self-employment and intense global competition for skills.

The OECD’s ‘Skills Outlook 2017’ report, also published this month, has meanwhile highlighted the urgent need to invest in the skills of adults and young people, particularly in those higher-level specialised skills that are necessary to compete in global markets. It also stresses the importance of a wide curriculum and ‘skills for social progress’ including so-called ‘soft skills’ such as communication, organization and readiness to learn.

So while there are challenges for the sector in this new environment, there are also huge opportunities. Brexit will inevitably mean a much greater need for homegrown talent, particularly in highly skilled professions in which we have previously tended to rely on immigration, mostly from Europe, to plug skills gaps. The case for a strengthened role for the sector post-Brexit could not be clearer, though it must still be made.

The SMF argues that the sector must evolve in response to these challenges, with colleges and independent providers rebranding themselves as ‘local champions and engines of social mobility’, and transitioning from ‘physical learning and physical estates to virtual learning’.

The report, finally, calls for greater security of funding and stability in policy to support the sector in realising its potentially central role in this brave new world. For some time now, public policy in this area has been headed in the wrong direction, reducing funding where greater investment is required and shrinking the curriculum to focus on a narrow definition of employability alone.

We are at a point where there is more risk in remaining the same than in accepting the need for change. But I believe that if we can get the policy environment right, our sector is bright enough and bold enough to rise to the challenges.

 

Dame Ruth Silver is founding president of the Further Education Trust for Leadership, and co-chair of the Skills Commission

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