Collab Group closes after 20 years

College membership fees refunded as board weighs up ‘future plans’ with AoC

College membership fees refunded as board weighs up ‘future plans’ with AoC

A national body that has represented UK further education colleges for nearly two decades has closed.

Members of the Collab Group were offered refunds for their annual membership subscriptions last month, and were told the organisation would soon be dissolved.

A communication to member colleges sent in early December said: “The board of directors have made the decision to dissolve Collab Group. The company will officially be closed from December 31, 2023.”

It is not yet clear precisely what will happen to Collab Group as a company, but multiple principals of member colleges told FE Week they expect it to be subsumed into the Association of Colleges (AoC).

The company was listed as active on Companies House at the time of going to press but its website has been removed.

FE Week understands the Collab Group board, chaired by LTE Group chief executive John Thornhill, is in talks with the AoC about how it can better represent large college groups. Those talks are ongoing, and no decisions have yet been made about whether a formal merger of the two organisations is on the cards.

Thornhill paid tribute to Collab’s “distinguished history” in the sector and said the board is exploring options.

He told FE Week: “The Collab Group has a distinguished history of supporting its members across the UK in shaping and delivering skills policy. In recent months the Collab Group Board has been working closely with members to identify their priorities and the role they would like Collab to play in representing their interests going forwards.

“We have also held positive discussions with a range of partners and senior stakeholders, including government departments, ministers and other representative bodies. Our deliberations also include a review of sector representation nationally and of representation in the devolved regions. We will confirm our future plans once these have been finalised.”

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, told FE Week: “We have had several discussions with the Collab board about the needs and opportunities for large college groups. They’ve been positive discussions, but nothing has yet been decided.”

Collab Group chief executive Ian Pretty retired from his role in December and was not replaced. It had 26 member colleges from across the UK at the time, a number which has fluctuated over the years.

Its website is no longer active, and it hasn’t posted on its X or LinkedIn pages since May. Companies House lists seven company directors, including Pretty, Thornhill and the leaders of Newham College, Bradford College and Walsall College.

Collab was founded in 2006 as the 157 Group following a review of further education colleges commissioned by the then secretary of state for education, Charles Clarke, and Chris Banks, the then chair of the Learning and Skills Council, a predecessor to the Education and Skills Funding Agency.

The review, Realising the potential: A review of the future role of further education colleges, was led by Sir Andrew Foster and was published in 2005.

Paragraph 157 of Foster’s report called for “greater involvement of principals in national representation, in particular those from larger, successful colleges where management capacity and capability exists to release them for this work”.

“There is a strong need for articulate FE college principals to be explaining the services they give society and how colleges can make a significant contribution to the economy and to developing fulfilled citizens,” Foster said.

A year later, the 157 Group, named after Foster’s paragraph above, was formed, initially as a group representing large and Ofsted ‘outstanding’ colleges. It was reported at the time as an equivalent to the Russell Group for universities given its “elite” membership requirements.

Over the years, under the leadership of Lynne Sedgemore, the group became a high-profile national voice for colleges and widened its membership criteria to allow more colleges to join.

Sedgemore told FE Week she was “very sad” to hear the news of Collab’s closure.

“I am very sad to hear this. In its heyday, 157 Group made a significant contribution from the particular perspective of large urban colleges on various fronts. I wish everyone involved a successful way forward,” she said.

Sedgemore retired as CEO in 2015 and was succeeded by Ian Pretty, who quickly launched a review of the organisation’s role which led to the rebranding of 157 Group to Collab Group.

Under Pretty’s leadership, the group pivoted away from high-profile policy and political work and instead focused on college commercial activities and supporting its members on specific government priorities, such as apprenticeships, Institutes of Technology, and higher technical skills.

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