Liz Bromley, chief executive, NCG

At the helm of the only national college group

‘FE lacks the confidence HE has’

Liz Bromley is feeling a little fragile today. She is heading home from NCG’s offices at Newcastle College by train instead of driving, because a “mad burst of floaters” in her eye, which she at first put down to stress, turned out to be a torn retina. Her eye is now filled with oil to hold the retina in place until doctors can operate.

Despite her affliction, she’s warm and open and exudes steely confidence. Bromley’s strength comes from her having grabbed every opportunity life offered her.

Her experience of both sectors has shown her that, “FE lacks the confidence that HE has. She says: “It says a lot [that] vice chancellors are in and out of education department ministers’ offices and not [college] chief execs and principals.”

Liz Bromley chief executive NCG

Eyeing opportunities

A torn retina hasn’t distorted her crystal clear vision for NCG.

It’s seven colleges – Carlisle, Kidderminster, Lewisham, Southwark, West Lancashire, Newcastle and Newcastle Sixth Form – are now on a “stronger financial footing” after NCG settled a four-year clawback dispute with the Education and Skills Funding Agency. 

The “amicable resolution” enables NCG to repay cash over a number of years, so it won’t impact on the student experience.

Bromley says she is “hugely relieved” it’s over. 

She is also eyeing the opportunities of devolution through the newly formed North East Combined Authority. Bromley says newly elected mayor Kim McGuiness is “really interested in what we do”. 

The NCG head is pushing for a “far more joined-up education offer across the region”, so colleges “divide the curriculum between ourselves and have centres of excellence… rather than being in competition”.

Liz Bromley as a child

The big escape

Bromley had a “mixed childhood” on a farm in Cheshire. She said going away to study English at the University of Oxford’s Worcester College was her “big escape”. 

Although Bromley was the first in her family to go to university, her mother only allowed to go if it was Oxford or Cambridge.

She got a conditional offer of two Bs, and credits Worcester College with being “sympathetic to my position”. “When people talk about Oxbridge not widening access, my experience is they really did in those days.”

After her escape, Bromley did not return to Cheshire for “many, many years”.

She married an accountant at 23, and had four children “really quite quickly”. She admits it was “far too quickly, probably”.

Her three daughters are now aged 38, 36, and 34 and her son is 31. 

As well as spending six months in Abu Dhabi – then “a couple of hotels and roads that stopped in sand” – and in Oman, until their first daughter was two, the couple lived to Bahrain. This was before the island’s causeway opened to Saudis, and Bromley recalls it as a “really small, friendly island” with “very good expat and local integration”.

She worked there as an administrator for Japan Airlines, keeping their Middle East head office  together as a “pidgin English translator [between] 11 Japanese, and six Arabic chaps for whom English was very much a second language”.

Liz Bromley in her younger years

Back in Blighty

Bromley returned with four children under seven and focused the next few years on raising them, while volunteering as a magistrate. The family settled in Aspley Guise, near Milton Keynes, where she got her first education role as an examinations officer for the Open University in 1997.

Four years later, an inquiry into the torture and murder of Victoria Climbié made recommendations to prevent such abuse going undetected by social workers again. The tightening of standards meant a move from the social work diploma to a new degree, and Bromley was tasked with leading its development.

Through the ’90s to the mid-2000s, Bromley saw the OU as “hugely influential”.  It was “the university of the second chance” because much of the population was still not degree-educated. 

Bromley took “all the CPD” she could and quickly rose to associate dean, then the first non-academic associate dean responsible for quality and students. She ran the OU’s 13 regional offices, which was “fabulous” as it meant “going about the country and seeing the OU in action”. 

She learned to “seize every opportunity, never say no, and give people around you the opportunities to grow”. 

“There’s no fun in being successful on your own… you have to watch others be successful. That all came from the ethos of openness at the OU and the inspiring people I worked with.”

University culture shift

Bromley became director of student life at the University of Salford in 2007 when students were starting to pay tuition fees. She said, “Suddenly, the focus was away from it being a privilege for students to get offered a place, into a business model to take students as paying customers. It was a massive cultural step.”

She was given a blank sheet to set up a new sector-leading student services department, with a mandate to “make people come visit us”. 

At first, the students’ union eyed Bromley’s new department as competition. But Bromley proposed they go under one roof as an integrated service. 

The two departments also began “cross-referring”, with students in financial trouble directed to Bromley’s and those with academic challenges signposted to the union.

“We talked about collaboration in the days when it just wasn’t fashionable. That was innovation in practice.”

Liz Bromley

Rebranding Goldsmiths

In 2012, Bromley became chief operating officer, registrar and secretary at the prestigious Goldsmiths, University of London. It had, until then, been massively research intensive and “wasn’t too troubled by its students until it had to be”. Bromley was tasked with remodelling how professional services supported its academic endeavour.

She says Goldsmiths had previously “always operated on a very financially challenged model. “It never viewed students as the way to solve that”.

Bromley saw the fact its senior professors who did research were actually teaching first years as a “wonderful marketing tool”. Goldsmiths had not until then thought it relevant.

During Bromley’s four years there, its student recruitment increased by several thousand students, putting Goldsmiths onto a financially stable footing. 

A career low-point

Bromley’s next role as deputy vice chancellor at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) was “far less satisfying”. 

UCLan had only been granted university status in 1992, and its “not particularly collaborative” working culture was very different from what Bromley was used to. 

This was Bromley’s lowest career moment, and she was “very happy” to move on after three years.

She describes UCLan as having been a “very local university that drew a lot of local students in on a lot of courses that they probably wouldn’t use, because they were always going to stay in the community. They were overqualified to do the things they could do”.

 UCLan was also a “very successful international student recruiter”, which meant the “money came piling in” but those students returned home after their degrees.

“That wasn’t the domestic inward investment that the university could have done with, to improve Preston,” Bromley explained.

Covid
Liz Bromley

Mickey Mouse degrees

Bromley believes that while some universities created since 1992, such as Nottingham Trent, Coventry and Derby, are “cracking”, there are “an awful lot who jumped on the bandwagon and are now taking a great deal of money from young people, probably unjustifiably”.

While Bromley would not go as far as to endorse the prime minister’s proposal to close ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’, she believes current student debt levels mean that “not everybody should assume a traditional university degree is the only way to become socially mobile”.

Turbulent times

When Bromley took over as NCG’s chief in 2019, she was “shocked that people weren’t more confident of what FE did”. 

She started during turbulent times. Former permanent chief, Joe Docherty, had resigned with immediate effect the previous year after the group was downgraded to grade three by Ofsted amid poor achievement rates.

A free school NCG sponsored had been forced to close after being judged ‘inadequate’, and the group’s two private training providers, Rathbone Training and Intraining, were also closed, with a loss of 300 jobs.

Bromley sees it as “very lucky” that she had an education background, while Docherty had come from the social housing sector. 

“I was recruitable at a time they were looking to recruit somebody like me – all the stars aligned.”

But things were not easy. NCG’s London colleges’ staff went on strike, with unions calling on the FE commissioner to de-merge them only two years after joining NCG. 

Liz Bromley with Keir Starmer

Being a national college

The de-merger never happened, and Bromley is adamant that being part of a large college group benefits small colleges.  She claims the group takes “challenged” colleges, “either financially or in terms of quality”, keeps them safe and boosts them. 

Bromley said West Lancashire College, which joined NCG in 2007, is “always on the edge financially because it serves a very small community. But it’s so important that community is served by further education in Skelmersdale. Being part of NCG keeps it financially sustainable”.

Being the only national college group means NCG picks up policy and practice from all over the country.

She said they see “rural poverty” in Carlisle, “inner city challenges” in Lewisham and “being part of the creative industries” in Southwark, which gives them “a lot of understanding about the impact of education on different communities”.

That breadth of experience means Bromley has been invited into “a number of conversations coming out of DfE”. She has also engaged with Keir Starmer, who she impressed on to “never look over your shoulder at colleges”.

Liz Bromley

Reduce to produce

NCG is the biggest college group by turnover, but its apprenticeship numbers have dropped 23 per cent, from 2,504 in 2021-22 to 1,929 this year, as part of a deliberate move to “focus on quality”.

Its ‘reduce to produce’ programme means larger cohort groups, with less spread of subjects and standards and more quality and compliance measures. 

Bromley claims NCG has halved the number of apprentices failing to make end-point assessment over the past three years.

Her plan is to build numbers back up again, because “now we’ve got a model that really works, so we can sell that to bigger employers who will provide a good student experience”. 

Bromley’s proudest career moment came last year when NCG became the first and only college-based provider bestowed with taught degree-awarding powers on an indefinite basis. More than 10,000 students have graduated from its university centre over the past decade.

 However, it wasn’t easy. Bromley described the award as “hard won” and “the devil’s job to get”.

But the hard work was worth it. “It put us on the same footing as a traditional university… with a really recognised qualification of our own,” she added.

The experience brought Bromley full circle, connecting her HE experience with her FE position.

Bromley reflects that she found FE similar to the Open University world she left almost two decades ago.

“It’s about life-changing opportunities for people who might not have had the best start.

“I found my place in FE.”

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