Colleges need to speak with one voice

13 Jan 2019, 5:00

It’s not going to be an easy year for the AoC, but Julie Nerney, its new chair, is looking forward to the challenge

This feels like a truly transformational moment for the Association of Colleges. The incredible energy and commitment to the #LoveOurColleges campaign is a great foundation to build on in the year ahead as we seek to influence the comprehensive spending review to put right the disparity between funding in FE and other parts of education.

When I reflect on how the world of work has changed since I started my first job, just under 30 years ago, it strikes me that there has been a shift from an occasional requirement to lead change to change being the new normal. The evolution of the way we work feels like more of a revolution, and the circumstances that colleges operate in are incredibly challenging.

Once in a century events such as Brexit; once in a generation shifts in the skills required for the new economic paradigm; continual and rapid technological change. When you couple these with the reality of insolvency and the marketisation of education, which creates choice for learners, we see an increasingly competitive landscape for colleges as we fight for market share while remaining underfunded.

But at the heart of all this are our students – individuals accessing education, whatever the subject, level or learning style. Students who need a high-quality teaching and learning experience every day. And that is what motivates me to be part of a college and the association: that sense of purpose that unlocks potential, celebrates ambition and transforms lives.

With the right investment, we could provide life-enhancing opportunities for hundreds of thousands more

It has never been more important for colleges to have a clear, credible, representative voice, to draw together solutions to these connected challenges and to be an authority whose relevance is driven from the experience and support of its members. The insight that AoC gets from our members allows us to illustrate the tangible impact of the issues and how they manifest themselves in communities, economies and for learners. We can speak to universal issues that transcend geography and those specific to regions.

Leading when things are straightforward is easy, but leading when things are hard requires courage, vision, ambition and dynamism. And the power of a membership organisation is unique – harnessing that power gives us credibility, and that only happens when we are all engaged.

The #LoveOurColleges campaign was striking in how powerful we are as a body when we speak with one voice. Principals and chief executives in every college are better connected to the needs of our economy and our workforce than those in many walks of life. They understand labour market dynamics, the technological drivers of change – and the challenges. Working with our members, we can speak confidently to those in the Treasury and the Department for Education about the difference that colleges make to social mobility and the prosperity of our country, building the case for fair funding.

Because every day, in hundreds of colleges, students turn up to learn. For some, it’s about rediscovering learning. For others, building confidence.

Some will be starting out in life, working towards a chosen career. Some are learning for pleasure. Some are reinventing themselves as they switch careers. And every one of them needs a college sector that is flourishing.

With the right investment, we could provide liberating and life-enhancing opportunities for hundreds of thousands more. This is so important given the dislocation felt by so many communities, shown by the Brexit vote, and for employers who need skills relevant to their needs.

I’m passionate about this. I’m looking forward to playing my part in providing support and leadership from AoC in championing the vital role that colleges make in driving social mobility and economic prosperity for the country.

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