The party conferences have given me renewed hope for the future of our sector

Facile reactions to the leaders’ announcements ignore the important message that colleges are at the heart of political thinking about national renewal

Facile reactions to the leaders’ announcements ignore the important message that colleges are at the heart of political thinking about national renewal

22 Oct 2023, 5:00

My top takeaway from the three party political conferences I’ve attended in recent weeks (Lib Dem, Conservative and Labour) is that change is afoot. Each party is positioning itself as the party of change, renewal, new approaches, a break with the past. The electorate will decide which one they believe is best placed to deliver that, but it’s clear that the polling is showing that this is the message the population wants to hear.

For all of us in further education, that is good news. After 13 years of austerity in which post-16 education and colleges were among the biggest losers, a change is long overdue. But being subject to change is rarely nice, and that is where we have been until recent years – subject to change, neglected and not respected.

So my second reflection on the conferences is pleasingly how much that seems to have changed. I am sure that colleges have never been so central to both the prime minister’s and the leader of the opposition’s speeches in successive weeks. But it goes deeper than mere warm words: we are seeing new investment coming in and we’re being engaged at the heart of government as well as with the opposition in ways we could only have dreamed of a decade ago. 

Not only is it good news that colleges are now being talked about by the most senior politicians, we are helping them understand the priorities, the realities and the changes which are vital for colleges to thrive. Of course, much of this is about money, and colleges need a long-term boost in funding.

To achieve that, we need to understand that broadly speaking governments only ever invest in services and infrastructure that are both effective in realising their priorities and politically attractive to the electorate. It usually has to be both – and both can only be achieved if there is understanding and respect for what colleges are, what they do, who they serve, how they help, what impact they make.

The conferences suggest we are making great strides

The conferences suggest we are making great strides on all of that too, with more fringe events about and with colleges than I have seen in over a decade on post-16, apprenticeship and skills issues. The AoC team was busy and in demand throughout. In itself that is a strong signal, but what was most remarkable is how often people from employers, business organisations, universities, thinktanks and others talked about the issues we are passionate about.

None of this brings quick solutions or funding to address long-standing shortfalls, of course. College leaders are still having to creatively and expertly make the books balance, deal with pay levels that are simply inadequate and work through qualification reforms which look likely to be damaging. It’s easy to forget those stark realities in the bubble of party conferences, so I am not going to get carried away. I know how far there is to go to restore pay levels and invest in facilities, IT and estates.

It’s easy to scorn the announcements of the Advanced British Standard and Technical Excellence Colleges by pointing to the scale of the wider challenges or to the history of similar approaches. There’s something attractive and cathartic about that reaction. For me both announcements were significant because they signalled that colleges are being noticed, understood and engaged in ways that augur well for the future.

I have to be optimistic, and I know that’s easier for me because I don’t have to deal with the day-to-day realities of running a college. However, looking to the longer term and building the relationships we need with politicians, it feels like we’ve turned a corner.

Optimism runs through the heart of our sector. Just look at the events, stunts, student voices and case studies emerging as part of Colleges Week for proof that colleges embody it in everything they do for and with learners.

Maybe, just maybe, we can believe that the future will be better for colleges themselves, their staff as well as their students. I truly believe it will be, and all of us at AoC will do all that we can to make sure it happens.

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