The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, used part of a speech in Birmingham last week to set out an agenda for devolving power away from Whitehall to local regions, towns and cities. In the course of his speech, he made the following remarks:
“We propose a new bargain: Cities and towns that come together with local businesses will be given historic new powers over transport, housing, skills and economic development. We are determined to make our great cities and towns the powerhouses for the creation of good jobs. Rebuilding the middle class. Helping businesses succeed. And our towns and cities will have greater control over the funding of skills, including with local businesses having a direct say in the funding of apprenticeships for the first time… And I can also announce that each and every authority which can bring forward plans of this sort in the first year of the next Parliament, will receive powers and access to resources from Whitehall the like of which we have not seen in living memory. Real powers for Britain’s towns and cities to make the difference that they are capable of making. To help create the jobs we need.”
These kinds of promises do have a bit of a familiar ring to them, with politicians of all parties over the last few decades claiming that they favour a process of decentralising power from Whitehall. Yet it hasn’t really happened, and the tendency has been largely towards an increase in the size and powers of central government. Should he become Prime Minister, time will tell if Mr Miliband is serious about real decentralisation, though his comment that local authorities will “receive powers and access to resources from Whitehall” may well suggest that under his plans ultimate control would still be retained centrally.
The Crucial Role of Colleges in Decentralisation
But let’s say that real decentralisation were to take place and that cities and towns were actually given historic new powers over things like skills and economic development. Clearly this would have major ramifications for local businesses and organisations, none more so than Further Education Colleges. This point was made by Lynne Sedgemore, executive director of the 157 Group of Colleges, who responded to Mr Miliband’s comments by pointing out that the Further Education sector would need to play a key role in any future decentralisation:
“We believe strongly that the best approach to enabling local growth and tackling serious issues like youth unemployment is to give genuine freedom to colleges, working in partnership with local partners (including LEPs) and employers, so that they can ensure a curriculum offer which is tailored to the needs of local people and which will promote the creation of new jobs and continued economic growth. Today’s commitment from the Labour Party to those principles is welcome, but the critical role of Further Education Colleges in these partnerships must be acknowledged. It is vital that we work together to ensure that employers can access a pool of future talent with the skills that are needed in the workplaces of the 2010s and beyond. We will be urging the Labour party to engage with colleges, as well as universities, LEPs and local authorities, as they develop the further detail of their plans for devolution of funding.”
We would very much agree with this analysis, especially the suggestion that Further Education Colleges play a critical role in the local economy. The importance of the sector has been demonstrated time and again by the results of our Economic Impact Studies, which consistently show that colleges play a far bigger role in local economies than they are often credited with.
Decentralised Labour Market Intelligence
If we could add anything to Lynne Sedgemore’s comments, it would simply be to mention the crucial part that labour market intelligence ought to play in the efforts of colleges to become more efficient economic developers.
For a curriculum offer to be truly tailored to the needs of local people, as Lynne Sedgemore says, in addition to working with LEPs and employers, colleges also need a good understanding of the dynamics of their local economy in terms of the industries and occupations out there. One of the things we constantly emphasise is that if colleges are to play key roles in shaping and growing local and regional economies, they need to understand what is going on not so much at the national level, but more crucially at these lower levels. Being attuned to the big economic picture whilst ignoring what is happening on the local level is a case of seeing the forest but ignoring the trees, and this will almost certainly lead to wrong solutions. For example, it may well be that Britain as a whole has a shortage of engineers, but if a college is an area where the demand of industries for engineers is much lower than the national average, responding to the national headlines is not really going to help local employers or those being trained. In fact it may even end up having negative results. A far better way is for colleges to utilise local labour market intelligence to find out what is really needed in their community, and to respond accordingly to those needs.
The second point to pick up on is Mrs Sedgemore’s comment that “It is vital that we work together to ensure that employers can access a pool of future talent with the skills that are needed in the workplaces of the 2010s and beyond.” Again, we completely agree, but again we would add that local labour market intelligence should be a key factor in making this happen. For employers to have access to a pool of future talent with the skills they really need, two things need to happen: learners need to know what occupations are actually out there and what courses they need to do to get into these occupations, and colleges need to know what the demands of their local labour market are so they can ensure they are training learners to supply this need. Local and regional labour market intelligence really can help both learners and colleges achieve these aims, for the benefit of employers and the community as a whole.
In summary, decentralisation of powers and resources is a great idea, but it will only really work if accompanied by decentralised solutions — solutions that take account of local and regional economies. One such solution is local labour market intelligence — data which provides a proper understanding of industry and occupation trends at a local and regional level. Utilising such information will go a long way towards ensuring that colleges are fully realising their key role as economic developers in a decentralised nation.