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Independent Commission on the College of the Future - First Meeting

Lewis Cooper, Director of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future discusses the Commission's first meeting earlier this month.

It is well understood that there are key ‘mega trends’ driving changes right across the world – from demographic shifts, to technological developments, to ever greater globalisation and to climate change. The OECD’s annual ‘Employment Outlook’ report, out this week, has evaluated the impact of these trends – and argues that the UK, in common with many other countries inside and outside the OECD, is woefully ill-prepared to meet them.

Colleges are critical to our chances of successfully meeting these monumental societal challenges – and the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, supported by NOCN and a number of other organisations, is looking at what governments, colleges, employers and others need to do to ensure that colleges are able to effectively play this role. What do we need from the college of the future, and how do we ensure that this is achieved over the next 10 years.

The first meeting of the Commission, chaired by Sir Ian Diamond was an opportunity for the Commissioners to discuss the plan for the coming year and the themes that the Commission will look at. There was a strong consensus that the report, to be published in Spring 2020, will have clear and specific recommendations – for governments across the four nations of the UK, for colleges and for employers. These will be ambitious and challenging but rooted in what we can practically achieve with the right vision, coordination and resource.

But there was agreement that the Commission must do more than solely produce a report – the process itself is also critical, as a means of raising the profile now of what colleges do and demonstrating the relevance of colleges to a broad range of public policy challenges. Colleges should be a key part of policy-making right across a range of government departments in Whitehall, Holyrood, Stormont and the Senedd, and the Commission will work hard to push this.

There was extensive discussion throughout the meeting about the themes that the Commission will explore. Demographic changes, technological developments and globalisation all received extensive discussion. With people living longer lives and changes in the nature of work, it was noted that colleges have an ever-more important role to play in offering opportunities for individuals to train and re-skill throughout their skills – often in small, bite-size chunks, rather than through long courses. The role colleges play – and must continue to play – in driving regional growth was noted, as was the stark divergence in local and regional labour markets: having a one-size-fits-all approach clearly will not work. Technological developments were seen as both a challenge and opportunity, but are clearly already disrupting expectations and aspirations, with clear implications for course design and delivery. And technological developments are also seeing a growth of new market entrants, such as Google, Facebook and Amazon – Commissioners were interested in what this might mean for colleges.

There were a number of tension points raised, which the Commission will have to grapple with. Perhaps most starkly is the need to develop a clear, coherent articulation of what colleges are – which politicians and the public can readily understand and relate to, whilst recognising the broad diversity of what colleges offer, which can’t readily be captured in a short ‘elevator pitch’. It was noted that agility is a key strength of colleges, and what this must be captured in any account of the college of the future. There was extensive discussion regarding the tension between qualifications and future skills, and the role of employers, colleges and governments in collaborating effectively to set the right strategic direction here. And there key questions of relationship were raised more widely - of how colleges work as part of an education ecosystem, which currently can be driven by often highly inefficient levels of competition, rather than considered, strategic collaboration; and of how colleges work strategically with employers, who don’t always take a long lens to skills need.

The Commissioners will meet four more times over the course of the year and will be supported by an expert panel – which includes representatives from the Learning and Work Foundation, Jisc, the Resolution Foundation and the OECD. And the Commissioners will be hosting a wide range of workshops and roundtables as they seek to engage as many interested stakeholders as they can.

We’re really excited about the potential of the Commission to bring a range of important stakeholders together to set a bold and confident policy agenda, with colleges rooted right at the centre. We’re off to a great start, but have a lot more to do.