Stop, collaborate and listen

Leaders representing the four UK nations have their say on HE and FE collaboration

Leaders representing the four UK nations have their say on HE and FE collaboration

A report called ‘Going Further and Higher: How collaboration between colleges and universities can transform lives and places‘ was launched last week by the Civic University Network, the Independent Commission on the College of the Future and Sheffield Hallam University.

The report argued that further and higher education must not be pitted against each other if post-16 education and skills systems across the UK are to deliver on pressing societal challenges.

It also identifies how unequal investment and a lack of clarity on the role that universities and colleges play has led to years of “unnecessary tension”. 

Researchers warned that post-16 education and skills systems can suffer from being too confusing and difficult to navigate for both students and employers and that competition between institutions exacerbates this problem. 

The report calls on colleges, universities and governments to commit to “creating joined-up education and skills systems” with a focus on shared responsibility for the sectors to deliver for people, employers and their places.


The authors of the report made several recommendations for governments across the UK’s four nations. 

They suggested governments set an “ambitious ten-year strategy” to ensure lifelong learning for all and to deliver on national ambitions.

The report also called for leaders to balance investment in FE and HE to ensure the whole education and skills system is sustainably funded so that colleges and universities can work in the interests of their local people, employers and communities.

Other suggestions included providing equal maintenance support across loans and grants for HE and FE students, regardless of age, personal circumstances or route into education.

Researchers said that governments should tackle the “messy middle” by defining distinct but complementary roles for colleges and universities to avoid a “turf war” over who delivers various types of education and training.

They also said a single funding and regulatory body for the entire post-16 education and skills system in each nation should be created to deliver more aligned and complementary regulatory approaches that will ensure smoother learner journeys.

FE leaders representing the four UK nations have their say…

The importance of strategic intent and systems leadership 

Audrey Cumberford, principal and chief executive at Edinburgh College and a member of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future

Audrey Cumberford

The Going Further and Higher report sets out clearly the need for colleges and universities to come together to collaborate in far deeper ways to support learning and business development. 

As a Scottish college leader, I know the importance of having a collective strategic mission. We have a relatively consistent message about the future of tertiary education, which is a real strength of the system.

It is clear, however, from this UK-wide report that too often ambitions are developed without sufficient co-creation of the policy and funding environment needed to deliver on them. This report sets out recommendations that would further develop systems that better empower college and university leaders with autonomy to build more connected place-based networks to support their communities. 

Realising a more collaborative future demands college and university leaders to be agile “systems leaders” – reaching beyond the boundaries of their own institutions. The work we are doing in my own city region across the eight colleges and universities shows that it is possible with a coalition of the willing to ask what more we can do collectively.

Partnership working takes time and energy

Shaid Mahmood, chief officer for transformation and change at Leeds City Council, chair of AoC and the Luminate Education Group and pro vice-chancellor-designate at Durham University

Shaid Mahmood

Education at all levels is levelling up. As I prepare to leave local government, and holding roles in both the college and university sectors, I believe the biggest tribute we can pay to this important piece of work is to bring to life the recommendations to develop place-based networks. 

As Richard Calvert of Sheffield Hallam University set out at the report’s launch event, we have to be willing to take a step back from institutional interests to truly be civic.

The experience of responding rapidly to the pandemic in local neighbourhoods has left me with little patience for complex arrangements that promise a great deal, but are underwhelming in delivery. 

It is important to recognise that partnership working costs, in time and energy. If we don’t invest sufficient resources in collaboration, we risk not delivering the education and skills our people economy desperately need. 

In England colleges and universities are too often pitted against each other. We’re collectively much better than that and most definitely stronger together. Our collective potential impact on social mobility and in helping communities to thrive is vast, and I look forward to playing my part at Durham University. 

Unlocking opportunities for lifelong learning is critical to support businesses to grow

Mark Huddleston, director at jheSOLUTIONS Ltd and formerly Northern Ireland commissioner for employment and skills

Mark Huddleston

From an employer perspective, the shared vision from colleges and universities for people, productivity, place and partnerships set out in this report strikes a chord. As the world of work changes at pace, unlocking opportunities for lifelong learning presented by greater coordination between the sectors is critical to support businesses to grow, ensure diversity in workforces, and ultimately drive social inclusion.

Delivering learning in a dynamic and flexible manner across colleges and universities would open up a new level of opportunity and innovation. The exciting work of curriculum hubs in Northern Ireland and the new Tertiary Education Group create the possibility to deliver something special for learners and business alike. 

Connections and collaborations are an important part of the picture in redressing unproductive competition and giving employers clear routes to engaging across education and skills. With a clear purpose and agreed clarity of roles, the tertiary system will work even more symbiotically with businesses.

How education and skills systems can keep up with what the world needs

Ellen Hazelkorn, author of the review of the oversight of post-compulsory education in Wales and commissioner and member of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future

Ellen Hazelkorn

Building more seamless post-secondary education systems across the four nations has to be the direction of travel, mirroring the shifts other countries are taking to address long-standing societal and economic challenges. 

Six years on from its review of the post-compulsory system, which I led, the Welsh government is moving ahead with the legislation to enable a more  coordinated system of further and higher education.

An important part of the reforms in Wales is the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER). This will be responsible for overseeing post-16 education, including adult and lifelong learning, with the aim of building a more integrated, coherent system where vocational and academic learning are equally valued.

This report is an affirmation of the progress being made with encouragement for other nations to follow suit in order to ensure that the education and skills systems keep up with what people around the world need to meet life choices and circumstances into the future.

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  1. In Apprenticeships at lvl 4+ across the last three years:
    Colleges deliver fewer than 10% starts
    ‘Other’ including Local Authorities and HE providers deliver about around 30%
    Private training providers deliver 60%

    Yet the collaboration focusses almost exclusively on partnership between Colleges and Uni’s.

    Falls a bit short of the joined up approach it purports.