Blogs + think pieces

“We want to blow the walls apart”

04th November 2016

The inaugural International Education Symposium, held last week at City of Glasgow College, was remarkable for two main reasons. First, it was one of the few occasions I can remember when high-level strategic issues concerning tertiary education have been debated by experts from across the world in a college setting at an event organised within the sector rather than by government or universities.

Second, the two-day event marked the launch of City of Glasgow College’s inspiring new £228 million campus, dubbed, without exaggeration, by principal Paul Little ‘a super-campus to rival the very best anywhere in the world’. The new college buildings, designed to provide first-class education and training to 40,000 students, are a real statement of intent and confidence, both in the college itself and in what the FE and skills sector is capable of achieving when it takes a long-term strategic view.

The launch followed two days of forward-thinking reflection on further education and skills which brought together delegates from the UK with colleagues from China and the United States. High on the agenda were access to higher education, improving articulation between HE and FE and the creation of new vocational pathways, developing more expansive and effective apprenticeships, and defining a distinct role and purpose for colleges and independent training providers.

The discussion was wide-ranging in nature, but a number of clear though overlapping themes nevertheless emerged. I will mention three. Perhaps the most significant, for me at least, concerned the need for a more collaborative, less binary tertiary space; one in which institutions matter less and students matter a whole lot more. Martin Doel, FETL Professor for Leadership in Further Education and Skills at University College London’s Institute of Education, defined this space in terms of an ‘eco-system’, characterized as complex, evolving, resistant to central control, locally specific and collaborative. The role of government in such a complex, changing system, he said, was to set a framework but ‘let the detail develop’ without interference. Paul Little commented that we needed to move from the ‘ego-system’ to the ‘eco-system’, highlighting the need to think past the institution to an appreciation of the needs and functions of the entire system.

Professor Sheila Riddell, Director of the Centre for Research in Education, Inclusion and Diversity at Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh, noted that colleges in Scotland had ‘done most of the heavy lifting’ in terms of widening participation, particularly among young people from the most deprived areas, but warned that there was ‘a lack of proper debate about the role of FE and how best it can work in the interests of young people in Scotland’. There was a need for HE and FE to work more closely and collaboratively together to tighten up articulation between colleges and universities, she said, introducing a theme that would recur throughout the symposium.

Lorna Unwin, Professor Emerita (Vocational Education) and Honorary Professor at the ESRC-funded LLAKES Research Centre at UCL Institute of Education, took up the issue. Highlighting a problem ‘common to all countries of addressing these issues from within our silos’, she said that rather than talking about better articulation between institutions, ‘what we want to do is blow the walls apart’. Professor Unwin called for a ‘recalibration’ of existing qualifications ‘so they can flow through whatever institution is offering them’ and a move away from the notion that young people enter the work-force ‘oven ready’. The apprenticeship model was a challenge to the notion that education can be ‘front-loaded’, she explained, since apprentices are ‘nurtured in the workplace to be in the workplace’. Apprenticeship has a particular role to play in ‘creating expansive workplace learning environments’ in which people have a ‘dual identity’ as worker and learner, she argued.

The second major theme was the challenge of uncertainty and the need for clarity of purpose in responding to it. Paul Little outlined a number of ‘wicked twenty-first century challenges’ likely to cause ‘imminent disruption in tertiary education’, including Brexit, with its looming but as yet unclear implications for education and training, and the continuing march of automation, which is remaking the workplace once again. Super-institutions, such as his own college, were, he argued, better able to weather these storms by taking a longer, more strategic perspective. Professor Doel stressed the importance of a clear sense of the purpose and distinctiveness of FE and skills in navigating change and uncertainty, warning of the danger of the sector being squeezed by competing national and local interests if it lacked a distinct vision and mission. Constantly chasing funding, he said, led to increasing lack of clarity about mission within the sector.

The third main theme, for me, was the remarkable commonality of themes across nations and, indeed, continents. Speakers from the United States and China echoed the concerns of speakers from Scotland and England. Professor Kevin Dougherty, of Columbia University, New York, talked about the ‘surge of interest’ in the community college sector in the US, but noted also ongoing funding inequality with universities and ‘pathway problems’ which manifested themselves in higher rates of drop-out among university students who transfer from community colleges.

Dr Dayong Yuan, senior researcher at Beijing Academy of Educational Sciences, spoke of the related challenges of population, pollution and education facing Chinese society, stressing the need to update vocational education and address the emerging gap between skills supply and demand in industry. Ng Cher Pong, Chief Executive of SkillsFuture Singapore, described the development of a new skills strategy in Singapore which stressed the skills of resilience and adaptability, and the capacity to continue learning throughout life, alongside more technical or occupational skills. Echoing a persistent theme in policy debate in the UK, he spoke also of the need to demonstrate that vocational pathways are just as valuable as academic ones and to devise ‘multiple vocational pathways with no dead ends’.

In some regards, tertiary education in the UK seems to be moving in the wrong direction. Conor Ryan, Director of Research and Communications at the Sutton Trust, highlighted the lack of higher-level apprenticeships – 7,400 under-25 starts each year compared to 361,000 UK-domiciled undergraduates under 21 starting each year – and how the introduction of ‘adult apprenticeships’ had led to a ‘blurring of targets for young people’. Ng Cher Pong’s account of Singaporean universities setting up lifelong learning units in response to demographic change and the need to reskill the adult population struck a particular chord, at a time when England, which faces many of the same challenges, seems set on destroying university lifelong learning, having overseen a near collapse in part-time mature study since 2010. Scotland offers a better model through, in particular, its individual learning accounts. However, here too, Singapore appears more ambitious, operating ILAs on a lifelong basis.

At the same, there are also opportunities for the sector, arising from skills devolution and the area review process in England and the creation of larger ‘super’ institutions, such as City of Glasgow College, in Scotland. More widely, the need for FE and skills to ‘recalibrate’ as we enter a period of disruption and innovation in education is now almost universally acknowledged, and represents in itself a significant opportunity to the sector, as well as a substantial challenge. There are signs, in events like this one, and in publications such as FETL’s forthcoming Possibility thinking: Constructive conversations on the future of FE and skills, that the hard thinking needed to adapt to and emerge strongly from these changes is underway. FETL hopes to see more providers taking the initiative and acting as thought leaders for the sector, and is committed to supporting them in doing so. The commonality of concerns and interests demonstrated throughout this event suggests that more of them would be useful and constructive.

There were, at least, some hopeful signs that a system which is, in Dame Ruth Silver’s words, ‘fit for purpose, fit for context, fit for phase and fit for place’, is not hopelessly out of reach, and that the sector has both the appetite and the talent to rise to the challenges it faces.

Paul Stanistreet

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