Research is full of examples where things happen by, well, happen-stance. Conditions are created where people come together to undertake the process of (as Sennett describes it) ‘problem-finding, problem-solving and critique’ on a range of issues. It is hard to imagine what the scientists at the Jenner Institute must have experienced when creating a vaccine for Ebola, or how they must have felt when they were able to explore what they did there and apply that to a vaccine for COVID-19, or how Fleming felt when he saw that petri dish with penicillin. In all these cases millions and millions of lives have been saved and the sheer brilliance of these individuals cannot go unnoticed. Indeed, what COVID-19 has taught us is that if we take away political and monetary barriers we can achieve amazing things. What might keep us in the current cycle of lockdown and release may well be money and politics as geopolitics prevents inoculation around the globe. It is not just in the sciences that these things apply either. It might have taken Howard Carter over 20 years to find the tomb of Tutankhamun but with new methods and backing from Lord Carnarvon he did it. The impact of such a discovery was not just on Egyptology but on anthropology, archaeology, culture, tourism, and the list goes on. J.K. Rowling writing Harry Potter in a small café in Edinburgh led to a multi-million (if not billion) pound explosion in the British film industry. All of these spin-offs needed further brilliant minds, excellent training and a skills sector that allowed them to flourish. Of course, with these examples there are some ‘big ticket’ items but every day in every business ‘intra-preneurs’ are creating new ways of working, new entrepreneurs are trying to solve problems, and all of these small battles and small wins, if done with the right value base, will lead us out of Covid-19 to hopefully a greener and safer world.
We have been fascinated by who trains and teaches these brilliant minds. Even here ‘happen-stance’, well, happens! As a group we met at a FACE conference. Two of us, by chance, worked in the same College. One of us was young and immature, the other a wise sage, and one was (and is) a researcher from WP. In 2012 we saw the potential of colleges and universities working together. We were engaged in research which focused on supporting Polar 1 and 2 students to progress to HE, as well as developing college HE programmes. Through work with NCOP (now Uni-Connect) we were able to promote collaborative working, and through teacher development on social mobility, we have tried to support people, repeating a message about the social and cultural capital of higher education. Indeed, the various CfE evaluations into the Uni-Connect programme have emphasised the value of collaboration between the two sectors. All of these small (but hopefully not insignificant interventions for some) have happened by the jobs market and FACE creating the right conditions. Indeed, our recent research paper (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1-mlRE90zGeCki0hlcAoanfDZ3QdSBuAT/view) features a workshop we undertook at the 2019 FACE conference on encouraging HE and FE collaboration and how the sectors could learn from each other and how this learning could shift power relationships)
Given the recent Skills White Paper, the Queen’s Speech, the publication of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, and the range of rumours about consultations on cuts to ‘non-STEM’ courses, there must surely be some concern about whether or not these create the conditions for the best collaboration to happen (or indeed what may happen in the next Harry Potter style series needs artists and filmographers). The need to legislate for Local Skills Improvement Plans could imply that HE and FE does not have a track record in this space. The putting of Institutes of Technology into Primary Legislation will give them a boost, but their real genius will rely on people coming together to create the conditions for thriving projects. The potential consultation (which may or may not have been launched at the time this is being read) seems to suggest that the Augar recommendations will be taken a bit at a time. Of course though, through all of this, we have seen how well HE and FE collaborates already, how well the sectors can work with employers, and we understand what could happen if the money and the politics were taken out of the valuable collaborative work that goes on. There is a risk if we all as practitioners in widening participation, curriculum design and delivery, and evaluation get too bogged down in the detail of legislation as we will miss the chance to create other opportunities and frame new debates. Indeed, having explored the Government Office for Science Future of Cities project (a project which explored what City Regions might look like in 2064) we do not think that long term planning on health, transport, energy, or improving democratic empowerment can happen without creative and cultural experiences (of all varieties). It strikes us that these experiences create place, and without place it is hard to imagine how a regional industrial strategy works. Any such strategies need scientists, problem-solvers, engineers, digital experts, designers, and artists in equal measure, and in abundance. This is what FE and HE collaborating together can achieve and this is what we all must work together on to ensure that all these reforms deliver.
Dr John Baldwin, Dr Neil Raven and Robin Webber-Jones have researched together on the themes presented in this paper for over several years, through their research organisation – Higher Opportunities. They are publishing their first book on leadership in Further Education later in 2021.
Photo: Mostafa Merarji