This election year, Colleges Week is more important than ever

This year’s celebration is the perfect opportunity to invite new political voices to witness the unique work of our anchor institutions

This year’s celebration is the perfect opportunity to invite new political voices to witness the unique work of our anchor institutions

1 Mar 2024, 5:00

We started Colleges Week in 2018 to raise the profile of colleges, celebrate their successes and impact and to engage more politicians, employers and stakeholders with the work they do. At the time we believed it could help us engage more people in power to really understand and respect colleges, and from that we hoped we would start to see more funding and better policies.

Seven years on, with a general election looming and politicians’ respect and understanding more important than ever, it seems like a good time to take stock of whether it has achieved those ambitions.

There’s no doubt about it: Colleges Week has allowed staff, students and governors to show their pride in their college. Every year we see an explosion on social media of people using their creativity to celebrate the impact going to college has had on their lives, their life chances and their confidence and abilities. If that was all we had achieved it would be enough, but there is a lot more.

Colleges Week has proved to be a great vehicle for engaging partners, stakeholders and politicians. Some of them will be longstanding supporters, but the week offers new opportunities to bring people into college for the first time. It’s incredible how many people in positions of power – politicians, officials, employers, journalists – have never been inside a college, and it is telling that their most common response after visiting is to be amazed at what they see and experience. Secretly I think many never realised how good they are: how impressive the staff, how motivated the students, how up-to-date the facilities and how exciting the learning culture is.

All of that exposure has helped raise the profile of colleges. Back in 2018, colleges were viewed in Whitehall as a problem and as poor performers. In 2016, for instance, then-Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw boldly told a parliamentary committee that he would ‘prefer all 16- to 19-year-olds to be educated in schools’ rather than in colleges which were ‘inadequate at best’.

A group of new MPs will want to understand and engage

That he had no evidence for the statement and had rarely visited colleges didn’t matter; his prejudice was a common one in the corridors of power. Colleges Week has helped to change that. The understanding is better and the respect improved – not enough on either count, but very different to where we were.

Now, don’t misinterpret me; I’m not saying the change is all down to Colleges Week. That is clearly not true, but the week is the pinnacle of a lot of hard work throughout the year by colleges, by AoC and by a range of important partners to engage, inform, enthuse and bring people on side. The week matters because all sorts of people are happy about celebrating the successes of students who have such great things to say about their college experiences, and who so often inspire with their stories.

The week has also coincided with the growing confidence among college leaders about their part in society, in education, in places, in the labour market and about the need for them to promote their college and build partnerships locally. That confidence is helped every year when we all see the weight and breadth of support colleges have from across the political spectrum and from all of the stakeholders that matter in every place.

By celebrating all that they do, it’s become clearer that colleges truly are anchor institutions, as vital to their communities and economies as they are to students and their prospects. That confidence matters, because it is infectious, and it attracts people leading other organisations to want to engage.

So, Colleges Week has been successful, and I hope it will go on showcasing a set of anchor institutions which have struggled to be noticed in the past. This election year gives every college the chance to engage with parliamentary and mayoral candidates, forging relationships with people likely to be in power for the next five years or more. A group of new MPs in Westminster will want to understand and engage with the anchor institutions on their patch and be seen to do that in the local media. Colleges Week is the perfect time to make sure they really do #LoveOurColleges.

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