After Brexit: Some challenges for governance
Brexit means change and the sector’s governors must grapple with it, says Toni Fazaeli
What do we do about an ageing population? What characterises a well-educated 18-year-old ready for adulthood? What is the purpose of further education, and what does Brexit mean for colleges? The big questions of our time demand careful thinking, and creativity and innovation in finding solutions.
As governors, we bring a vast diversity of life and work experiences and, therefore, insights on Brexit and how it will be, or might be, affecting our own industry sector. I have seen governing bodies work creatively to maximise learning from members’ varied vantage points to benefit the college, but, alas, also sometimes a governor’s day job is ‘hung up on the coat pegs’ beforehand, and barely used. Great chairs and clerks innovate and orchestrate time to delve deep into governors’ expert knowledge, including on Brexit.
My mind spins when I think about exiting the European Union, and ever faster as Brexit gets refracted differently almost daily by rip tides of policy and politics. This is not a reason to wait and see. Governors lead the strategic direction for colleges, and contribute to leadership of the local economy. Brexit means change and we must grapple with it.
Governors are likely to hold strong convictions, ranging from anger about the total absurdity of Brexit and the damage it will do to the economy and our country, through to seeing only attractions and benefits. Can we be cool headed in the best interests of our learners and communities? Should we hold on until it is clear what Brexit means for the country, and therefore what it means for further education? Or should we be on the front foot developing plausible scenarios, so that our college is primed for the possible outcomes of Brexit? Have your governors got together yet to share how Brexit is starting to play through for local industries in which they are engaged? Are your governors drawing on expertise from the local enterprise partnerships and local authorities, the local Chambers of Commerce, local networks of the Institute of Directors and small business organisations, and so on, and hearing their projections and analyses for the consequences of Brexit?
One thing is clear. Skilled and well-educated young people and adults will continue to be in high demand, whichever scenario becomes our local reality post-Brexit. However, the blend and levels of skills and the sectors that might thrive or decline can not be foretold with any precision. Will there be a booming logistics sector as UK exports expand, boosted in part by relatively weak sterling against the euro, or will exports decline because of the imposition of tariffs for UK goods entering Europe? How do governors and the executive, along with logistics employers, decide whether to expand training in logistics, or cut it back?
What is the balance your college wishes to strike so that, as well as sector specific skills (which may or may not be in as much demand in the future), your learners develop vital flexible and highly portable cross-sectoral skills such as communications, customer service, project management, robotics and artificial intelligence applications, readiness for fast learning of new skills, etc? Some boards are calling for a curriculum strategy with a focus on the innovations needed locally for broad modern post-Brexit skills? Too narrow a focus on skills that may or may not have lasting currency, will limit learners and their prospects. Adult education will be increasingly important as working lives increase by one or even two decades before retirement and with a shifting economy. What is the optimal balance between adults and young students that your college governors have determined?
Following the recent government-led area reviews, local implementation groups, were established, normally comprising college executives along with the local enterprise partnership and local authority. This forum can continue to inform and test thinking and interpretations of Brexit locally, for industry sectors and for local colleges. Governors will want regular updates from the implementation group, including the likely consequences of Brexit.
Governors may also want to ask the Association of Colleges’ regional networks of governors to address Brexit and the governance role and responsibilities, and often principals attend these sessions. Governors will want assurance from the executive that they are engaged and increasingly well sighted on local and regional economic and skills priorities as a result of Brexit across each vocational area. Post area reviews, let’s make sure we don’t lose governor strategic leadership for the locality, going well beyond the walls of our organisation. Inward looking to our institution and rear-view scrutiny styles of governance equal impoverished governance. Don’t let your board get trapped!
As governors we have a moral and cultural strategic leadership role, and as we set the values and educational character for the college. We must not forget that most young people in June 2016 voted to remain in Europe. Our current membership of the EU provides many infrastructural benefits for college partnerships across Europe, and some funds to assist. Governors will want to set a refreshed international strategy in light of Brexit, showing how we will forge connections with European skills and training, respecting the democratic voice of young voters. Governors will want to be certain that our students are excited and well prepared for the global and European economies and cultures they want to, and will, experience. It would be a dereliction of duty if our college’s character and ethos became that of a ‘narrow little Englander’.
Toni Fazaeli is Visiting Professor of Education, University of Wolverhampton, a longstanding governor and was, until recently, a chair of governors in the midlands, and a governor at a college in the south east. She has also chaired one of the Association of Colleges’ regional governors’ networks, and has worked and advised on governance in further education and more widely.