Blog: Business and usual? Mark Ravenhall

Blog: Business and usual? Mark Ravenhall

21st November 2014

I'm on the train back from three days at the Association of Colleges annual conference. It is the nature of annual conferences that they come but once a year, and therefore there is the tendency to judge progress by them--or at least use them to reckon one's years in post. In this respect annual conferences are rather like rings in a tree; they are an indicator of growth through wet seasons and drought.

Even Vince Cable (for non-UK readers Dr Cable is the government minister currently in charge of public funding for further and higher education in England) referred to the fact he had now spoken at five AoC conferences. Was this a wistful reference I asked myself, now we are on the slow, arduous ascent to a General Election, and a change of government (of whatever complexion). Other politicians who attended were in no mood to let us forget this either. And this year was noticeably more party political than the previous four in this parliament.

Some delegates were surprised by all this politicking. Having spent two days in Edinburgh at an international conference that visited the Scottish Parliament, I was not. This largely English affair was tame electioneering in comparison to Indy Ref. And in Birmingham there was no ‘Westminster establishment’ to blame either. The speakers were all part of it.

There was also precious little difference in the big messages. Times were going to be hard (very hard), schools were going to be favoured (along with health and other protected budgets), apprenticeships were going to be prioritised, and some form of devolution was on the cards.

There is an inelegant term that is trending in policy circles at present, ‘Manc Devo’. Someone remarked this sounded like a post-punk tribute band, but it stands for Manchester Devolution.  This is probably self explanatory. But as most delegates were not from Greater Manchester, they wondered what would be the implications in the hinterlands where those of us who live outside cities thrive or otherwise.

The other thing some of us noted was how imprecise the political language has become. Education, skills, training, learning etc were used interchangeably and often in the same sentence. But minds were clearly on a certain by-election which has been dominated by the current UK debate around economic migration.   When one politician told us not to believe the opinion polls, for a moment I thought he said ‘Poles’.

Such imprecision in language would not be acceptable in the rest of Europe, where politicians talk about formal, informal and non-formal learning with great accuracy and often at great length. That is what speech writers are for, I guess. But language is important to us in further education. The ‘E’ word happens to be crucial when you think about the role of colleges in developing people as well as their skills.

Skills come and go, a bit like businesses and government agencies. But education provides us with the means and confidence to adapt to change. Sometimes I think we should be more confident ourselves about that. But we tolerate other people’s definitions and sometimes even repeat them.

The other trap we fall into is accepting the dominant belief that FE is about preparing people for labour market entry. This is not just a debate about ‘young people’ and ‘adults’, where the focus on youth will always win. This is about how we conveniently ignore the fact that most of the skills needs are in the current workforce. That is where the productivity gap is most keenly felt.

Mr Pratt of the LEP Network was honest about privileging the demands for higher level skills (economic need) over those of NEETs (social need). Professor Keep of Oxford University reminded us that a third of UK employers (I thought it was more) did no training at all. And those that do are not overly keen on paying for it. We have, it was argued, created a sort of welfare state dependency for employers.

There is nothing new in this. In a sense it is business as usual, but as austerity bites further after the next election, it begs the question who picks up the tab.

As our elected representatives move from leadership to followership, to testing out ideas with focus groups or conferences, using what Professor Anderson of Antwerp Business School called the mass intimacy of social media, it will be interesting to see what the FE sector feeds back to them. Our colleagues in schools will be doing it, as will universities, so I am excited to see what sort of ideas and solutions come from FE.

For FETL it was our first annual conference (of any kind).  Many colleagues working in UK further education providers stopped by our stand in Birmingham. We’d like to thank you for discussing your ideas with us. I do hope some of you will take the time to consider our grants and fellowships programmes (on this website) to enable some of these ideas to see the light of day.  If not before the next election, then at least during those crucial first hundred days of the next government.  I got the sense that people in FE were more willing to stand up and fight their corner and make use of the research out there, to create more knowledge and help shape their own futures.

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