This much-needed focus on colleges must be capitalised on

29 Mar 2019, 11:51

The chair of the new Independent Commission into the College of the Future sets out his agenda

Colleges for far too long haven’t received the recognition that they deserve. Happily, amongst policy wonks at least, this is starting to change.

The post-18 education review led by Philip Augar is yet to publish its recommendations, but it has been tasked with looking at developing a better-balanced post-18 system and has had significant discussions over the past year of the role of colleges. Damian Hinds’ speech in December set out plans to develop a new quality level 4/5 pathway to run parallel to undergraduate degree options – with much of this anticipated to be delivered through our colleges.

The state of play is much more advanced in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, where colleges are better recognised as the central community anchors that they are. And yet there is still a great deal more to be done in these contexts too – addressing inequities in esteem, inadequate articulation between different parts of the system and between colleges and other parts of public policy-making, including, crucially, in terms of the welfare system.

This growing and much-needed focus on colleges must be capitalised on, including learning lessons from what is happening across the different corners of the UK. From changes in technology, attitudes, demography and climate, we face clear national and global challenges to which colleges – as dynamic institutions rooted in their communities, with expertise in engaging with a diversity of people at all ages and stages, and with often excellent relationships with businesses of all sizes – must be a key part of the answer.

If colleges are to play that role, then we have a lot of work to do to ensure that they are not just given their rightful central place within education policy, but beyond the traditional edu-chatter. They must come to be a critical part of conversations on industrial strategy and regional growth, welfare policy, health and social cohesion and integration.

There are, of course, critical questions as we ensure the colleges of the future are best suited to meet these challenges. This must involve questions of their role, scope and purpose and how they relate to other parts of the education system, to employers, to people and to governments. Who should they teach, how and what should they teach? How do we ensure that we have the properly supported staff in place to deliver this work? Finally, questions on the role of colleges in enabling all people to have a life of learning and, for some, for learning to give them the skills to escape in-work poverty.

For me, this agenda is pivotal. And that’s why I am so pleased to be leading a new Independent Commission into the College of the Future, which will undertake precisely this work. We will look at what we all need from our colleges right across the UK, and what this vision for the college of the future can be.

We will be using this process to ensure that as many people as possible who have a stake in the agenda are able to engage and have their say. And we will use this process to ensure that many of those who don’t yet realise the relevance of colleges to questions they are looking at come to see new connections and possibilities.

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