FE Reform: New opportunities, established partnerships?

Artwork of two hands lightly touching

The nature and shape of how we think about ‘tertiary education’ is changing. Arguably, the debate about Further and Higher Education, its purpose and its place have existed since guilds first established themselves, hundreds of years ago, to train and provide development to a workforce. Most recently the Augar Review has provided a glimpse into how the English Further and Higher Education sectors could collaborate (as well as compete) to find new approaches to supporting individuals and communities to develop skills, acquire knowledge, challenge assumptions and find new ways of working. The continued delay in a Comprehensive Spending Review (for understandable reasons during the Pandemic) makes realising the ambition in Augar challenging. Moreover, the anticipated Further Education White Paper potentially provides a way for this sector to find new prowess within government. At the same time, there should be some caution about this paper as there have been many cases of trying to create a ‘golden age’ for tertiary education in England since incorporation in 1992.

The White Paper will pose, once again, serious questions asked about the role of education and skills at levels 4 and 5, and the place for ‘higher level technical reforms’. A plethora of other ideas will try and gain policy tractability through the White Paper and this is obviously done against the backdrop of debate about the traditional model of university where students move away –  boarding, studying on three-year programmes – as opposed to newer models of people accessing Higher Education. Reforms of the tertiary systems in other nations have seen changes to funding bodies but not much to the overall architecture of the system. The White Paper might provide an opportunity for more radical reform. 

Yet, even without a response to Augar, or a change in funding, or significant change indicated in the White Paper, there are things we can do as practitioners to think about how individuals can access different routes to Higher Education. For one, thinking about having universities and colleges working together, not just on strategic bidding and lobbying activity (as well as franchising and validating courses), but entering into partnership to support HE and re-training based on geography and context. Doing this may enable us to respond to the pandemic in a way that presents coherent collaborative solutions for students to move between levels of study across providers in an area, and for employers to think about providers not in competition but working in ways which are complementary. This could provide a step-change in how we shape curriculum and how we advise people to access that curriculum. 

Indeed, these new approaches to partnership working could ensure underrepresented groups can take part in Higher Education. The ambition must stretch beyond initiatives such as Institute of Technology (which on the surface see collaboration taking place between colleges and universities) as a starting point to much wider system reform, created from the ground upwards. New structures, putting resource into supporting people to attract groups into Higher Education in a conurbation, to CPD with each other on topics ranging from student retention to improved attainment of students can start to emerge. Of course, this requires providers to think in a much less marketised way. It needs the jettisoning of neoliberalism approaches which have pervaded in recent times It requires regional approaches to universities and colleges working together to develop new approaches to delivery. It means that universities, colleges (and private providers) need to spend time understanding each other’s offer and respecting offer-making in clear and transparent ways.

Ultimately the White Paper will promote technical-rational approaches to the delivery of Higher Education. However, how that manifests itself is far from certain. However, one thing for certain is that that if dialogue begins now between providers, new radical ways of attracting people into higher level skills, Higher Education, new curriculum development, and regional support for people after the pandemic can be put together. As ever this has to be led by practitioners who engage in the pursuit of inclusive practice across different institutions.

Robin Webber-Jones is a FACE Exec member and Vice Principal HE and Academic Studies at The Sheffield College

Photo by Claudio Schwarz

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