If I had to sum up what I picked up from this year’s AoC Conference in November, I would say I sensed a sector that is somewhat nervous about the future, with many anticipating a number of big changes around the corner.
Take Area Reviews. The subject seemed to dominate a lot of the conversations I had, and whilst there is a sense of them being seen as a necessary evil that colleges just hope to get through, there are still many colleges that want to take a proactive approach to ensure that they are ready for their review and can demonstrate enough to make the process plain sailing. In this respect, our report – Preparing for Your Area Review – was eagerly received, and you can download a free copy by clicking on the picture.
What will the post-Area Review sector look like? That was another of the key issues that seemed to be in the thoughts of many. There is a clear expectation in the air that there will be a good many mergers over the next year or so. What will the colleges that emerge from the merger process look like? Clearly, one of the major challenges for colleges will be to grow outside of the traditional funding stream. And so there was much talk about the need to exploit more higher education in the sector, to capitalise on adult loans, and to more fully embrace the devolution and localism agenda, forging better partnerships with LEPs and Local Authorities in order to increase growth and productivity in local economies.
But undoubtedly the big thing on people’s minds was apprenticeships. In one of those moments when you’re not quite sure whether you actually heard aright, the Skills Minster, Nick Boles told his audience the following: “As your friend, I have to ask you this: why on earth are you letting these guys [PTPs] nick your lunch?” Cheeky perhaps. The cynical will wonder whether he is just playing political games, setting colleges up as the fall guy when the Government misses its 3 million target. But whether that is the case, or if Mr Boles genuinely wants colleges to take up the mantle (I suppose it could be both), it remains the case that colleges are going to have to get smarter about the whole apprenticeships issue. Their future depends on it.
The day before AoC, I had the privilege of meeting up with six Principals from a broad mix of colleges across the country during a FERDI panel session to discuss the issue of apprenticeships. One of the highlights of that time together was a really candid discussion about apprenticeship provision, in which the general consensus was that there is much opportunity to improve in this area. Employers aren’t exactly “falling over themselves” to approach colleges for more apprenticeships, and the Principals admitted that they could employ a more scientific and commercial approach to increasing their provision. Often the approach is simply this: Get a list of every electrical company in the area, and get on the phone to them.
We believe that one of the keys to growing apprenticeship numbers is for colleges to better understand where the industry growth is likely to be in their area, what occupations are driving that growth, and who the employers are. This is a far more targeted and effective approach, and it got an enthusiastic reception both by those around the table, and those I spoke to at AoC. For those of you who would like to find out more, you can download a free copy of our report – Apprenticeships: A New Approach – by clicking on the picture.
All in all, I got the sense that this was a sector that is on the cusp of some big changes, and the challenge is to understand how to respond. This is why we are holding a National Conference in London in March next year – Beyond Area Reviews: New Approaches to Growing Local Economies – which will look into many of the themes mentioned above. We are lining up some great speakers for this event, and we will also have some interesting panel discussions. If you would like to find out more about this free event, or register to attend, click on the footer below.
Next year’s event will probably have a very different feel, with most of the Area Reviews well under way and the collaboration or merger process having begun. One thing we can say for certain, even now, is that as we move beyond Area Reviews, the new look sector will be vastly changed from the one we have known for years. And with that a whole new set of challenges will no doubt arise.