Live: Colleges of the future

The economy that emerges from this crisis will be very different from the one we had going into it. Richard Dawson speaks to leaders of the North East’s biggest colleges to discuss how further education is facing up to the challenge and preparing students for the future

Further education (FE) has been described as the ‘Cinderella’ sector. It’s a part of the education system that is integral to our social and economic vitality but one that exists in the shadows of schools and universities.

Part of the reason for this is because FE colleges can be many different things. We think of them as a bridge between school and university for 16 to 18-year-olds, providing A-Levels, BTECs and other subject-based qualifications for school leavers.

Colleges are a lot more than this. Many have a strong emphasis on adult (19+) education, apprenticeships, technical and vocational qualifications, workforce training and higher education.

The sheer variety of educational provision in the FE sector means that the funding settlement is also a lot more complicated.

We know, for example, that primary and secondary schools are part of the public sector, funded by the taxpayer to deliver a curriculum of maths, English and science.

We also understand that we pay tuition fees to attend universities and gain degrees and doctorates.

For colleges, what we pay to attend and whether we pay at all depends entirely on the kinds of courses we undertake while we’re there.

For 16 to 18 or sixth-form type education, the Government pays. For apprenticeships, it’s a mix of employer and state contributions. For higher education courses like foundation degrees, students can take out a loan to pay for fees in much the same way they can at universities.

These are just three examples of training that colleges provide, each of which has a different funding model attached to it.

When we think about how FE will be affected by the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to first understand that no two colleges are the same.

“All colleges are built and made up in different ways”, says Chris Toon, deputy principal at Gateshead College.

“The FE sector is incredibly diverse and that’s not often widely understood”, adds Ellen Thinneson, chief executive of Education Partnership North East.

That means when trying to get to grips with how COVID-19 will impact the sector, the reality is that there will be wide variations between colleges depending on their circumstances.

Tony Lewin, principal of Newcastle College, says: “I think the FE sector is very concerned about the hit that it gets. There are certain areas of delivery, areas of funding that colleges work in that could see quite significant pitfalls for both this year and next year.”

Indeed, a recent survey by the Association of Colleges (AOC) revealed that colleges stand to lose £150 million this term alone, with potentially £2 billion of income uncertain in the next academic year.

“That’s 40 per cent of income”, explains Ellen.

When the pandemic took hold back in March, Gateshead College, Newcastle College and Education Partnership North East, – which comprises Sunderland College, Northumberland College and Hartlepool Sixth Form  – all acted quickly to ensure continuity of business operations and student engagement.

This Herculean effort has seen hundreds of college staff in business-critical functions like payroll, HR, information services and IT move to home-working and teaching staff adapting to deliver remote learning solutions pretty much overnight.

“We have transitioned into a new operational model as best I could have hoped for”, says Ellen, who runs the largest regional college group in the UK comprising seven campuses and around 20 satellite delivery centres.

“I was really impressed with how quickly both staff and students responded to the challenge of working remotely”, adds Tony who is in charge of the largest college in the North East, with more than 16,000 students registered.

For Chris, who leads the number one ranked college in the country by the Education Skills Funding Agency, the transition was also smooth owing to the fact that agile working practices had been piloted in previous academic years.

One of the more problematic areas is in the workforce training and apprenticeship space, where colleges work closely with businesses who are more exposed to the dire market conditions we’re experiencing at the moment.

Tony explains: “Nationally, there’s concern about what we would call commercial income. If, for example, a private company is paying for you to provide bespoke training for them, that could well become a low priority in the current crisis and could be cut.”

This commercial income can make up as much as 10 or 15 per cent of revenue for certain colleges.

Additionally, where Government has committed to protecting 16-18 and 19+ education budgets, there has been no support so far for apprenticeships, which like workforce training is subject to private sector demand.

“The one that people are most concerned about is apprenticeship funding,” adds Tony. “The rules are very tight and don’t allow for the flexibilities most people would want.”

The current situation means there could be many apprentices who are at the end of their training but can’t continue because they are working for a company that is unable to operate.

Ellen says: “The number of apprenticeship places will inevitably fall moving forward and colleges therefore need to be supported with additional resources to support the catch up for those that have missed out.”

The biggest challenge for students is going to be navigating a labour market where there are fewer job opportunities and more competition for work. Gateshead, Newcastle and Education Partnership have a crucial role to play in preparing and advising students for this new reality.

For Chris at Gateshead College, the key will be tailoring provision to address skills shortages, what he calls “education with employment edge.”

He says: “What most of the employers we work with were telling us, pre-coronavirus, is that there are massive skills shortages and lots of areas are desperate for talent.

“That’s why we try hard to give good advice and guidance so we can connect young people to employment opportunities.”

Meeting the labour market challenge is also about making sure students have the transferable skills, resilience and agility to be able to apply themselves to a much broader range of careers.

“It’s about developing the whole student, not just the qualification,” Tony explains.

The funding and employment challenges aside, what’s clear is that a new economy will be borne out of this crisis and, therefore, colleges need to be supported to become colleges of the future.

That’s why the AOC are setting out five broad asks to Government.

The first is to ensure every young person between the ages of 16 to 18 has a high-quality education or training place.

The second is about what Ellen calls “a restart programme” for 18 to 25-year-olds, which would allow college leavers competing with graduates to be able get new skills and knowledge.

The third ask is for a national skills and education programme. This would see the adult education budget brought together with the national skills fund, national retraining programme and shared prosperity fund to create a “coherent, easily managed fund that works for adults in every situation and every community.”

The fourth ask is for a £1.5 billion capital fund to be released, enabling colleges to bring in a blended learning model that combines face to face and online education.

The last thing colleges are asking for is a review of funding rates and rules to ensure that existing resources and new investment are flexible and help colleges deliver what the people and employers of the new economy will need.

“So many colleges shape and evolve communities,” says Ellen. “We need to have the agility to be able to shift the curriculum strategy to meet what I think eventually will be a changing economy.”

Tony adds: “We have to have the flexibility to be able to adapt.”

Chris concludes: “Who knows what things are going to look like at the other side of this crisis? The economy is going to be completely changed, society is going to be completely changed and some industries are going to be completely changed.

“We recognise that we need to do something different to prepare people for their next steps.”