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Independent Commission on the College of the Future – Where are we now?

Lewis Cooper, Director of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future discusses the progress of the Commission now that it has held its third meeting. NOCN is a key supporter of the Commission.

The past few months have been busy, productive and enlightening for us at the Independent Commission on the College of the Future. There have been promising announcements on funding and Government priorities that show recognition in Westminster and Whitehall that colleges are vital public assets. If we are to face the challenges to come in the next ten years, then we need serious, long term thinking about the role and place of colleges.

That’s why we have been out and about, meeting with and holding events with a really broad range of partners to ask what we want and need from colleges of the future - with students, trade unions, politicians, senior civil servants, college leaders, governors, university representatives, business leaders and many others, right across the UK. And in September we also brought together a number of international experts – from Ireland, Finland, the Basque Country, Slovenia, the Netherlands and France – to feed into our work too, challenging and testing our thinking.

The conversations so far have been hugely informative. We have benefited greatly from new ideas, new challenges and new connections, all of which contributed to our thinking at the third Commission meeting in September. There are also a number of issues that have consistently come up across all of these conversations. Here I want to pick up three core themes that have come across particularly starkly, and which show a real appetite for further discussions about the role and place of colleges in the future.

Colleges are having a moment

Firstly, people are clear that colleges across the UK are having a ‘moment’. Partly, the greater focus on colleges reflects renewed policy focus on the role that colleges can and must play within skills systems, and within economies and communities. And there is also a growing view that in many countries, post 18 education has become too imbalanced. The recent Augar review of English education funding and finance most recently making the case for an education system that works for ‘the other 50 per cent’ who don’t attend university. And people are also clear that Brexit has really focussed minds on challenges around skills gaps, poor productivity and the need to be able to retrain and reskill people who are adversely affected by any impending economic shocks.

Time for a new vision for the sector

Secondly, there is a real appetite for building on this with bold, ambitious thinking, and a confident new vision for our sector. We face a raft of massive challenges and changes – which extend far beyond Brexit of course, to include dramatic changes in our climate, technology, demography and the world of work. These will create change for our colleges and our communities whether we like it or not. But if we are bold and ambitious, colleges can own this change and play a leading role in supporting people, communities and employers across the UK to rise to these challenges. This is demonstrated by NOCN and City & Guilds’ recently published report, Close the Gap, that proposes a roadmap for technical & skills education, and is a really important contribution to the discussion about the future of the English skills system. People overwhelmingly are excited about the opportunity of getting behind a vision which owns the coming changes across the UK – and open to serious critical reflection about the changes that will be involved, too.

Facing challenges right across the four nations of the UK

And thirdly, people are clear that while many of these challenges and changes are universal, any vision of the college of the future must reflect national, regional and local contexts. It has been said time and time again in our discussions that colleges are absolutely rooted in their communities, and that their focus and the approach they take will differ significantly to reflect this. And of course, people are also rightly clear that while there are common challenges and opportunities for colleges across the four nations, the recommendations that we make in our final report next Spring will have to be distinct and particular across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Of course, the conversations we have been having have brought up a great many questions and challenges too – many long-standing, and many which are extremely knotty. But it’s clear that there is a real enthusiasm for thinking fundamentally about the role, focus and purpose of colleges, within and across the four nations, and that we have a real moment to capitalise on this. This puts us in a real place of strength as we continue to ask the fundamental question - of what we want and need from our colleges from 2030 onwards.