New rules, new norms? Mark Ravenhall

New rules, new norms? Mark Ravenhall

18th September 2014

It has been an interesting couple of weeks talking to a diverse group of FE leaders interested in our Fellowships. One of the encouraging things has been the agreement that there is a need to think hard about the future of further education and skills in the UK.

One of the questions that has been posed to me is whether I think FE will be operating under a new set of rules after the next election. Many organisations in the sector are putting forward their own ideas and manifestos, hoping to influence what the political parties say in theirs. Some are busy planning interesting fringe meetings at the round of party conferences over the next month. Very wisely, these FE agencies and think-tanks want to help shape the future, as well as respond to its demands.

The main issue will be public funding of course, or should I say ‘financing’? In England certainly there has been a great deal of government interest in moving public funding of post-statutory education and training to income-contingent loans. Both in Higher Education and FE, the jury is out whether this is a good idea in the long-term. (In the short-term, arguably at least, it looks good on HM Treasury’s balance books.)

We know that government has previously considered extending what are now termed Advanced Learning Loans (currently Level 3+ and age 24+) to 19+ or Level 2. Perhaps both, I don’t know.

But we do know that loans have been a game-changer in HE, forcing universities to think harder about ‘the customer experience’ and, yes, ‘the customer’ (students, parents, employers etc.)   HE leadership is no longer just about the education (a degree of knowledge, as one VC memorably said to me), but where the students live, what they do, and where they progress to. Any parent with kids of the usual full-time undergrad age will tell you that universities have got slicker about marketing not just what HE does, but where it leads.

HE leaders have also seen some of their famous autonomy shrink as government has a greater stake though the loans-book. So much for letting go. Highly respected scholars like Sir David Watson have argued that the current situation is unstable; the future uncertain.

One thing is certain, however: that HE is in a very different place from 2008 at the outset of the financial crisis. The same could be said for FE, so what are the implications for leadership in our sector?

Well, the main thing I learned from talking to prospective Fellows is that providers are thinking hard about it. Leaders are beginning to ‘think the unthinkable’ or ‘what lies on the other side of the next funding reforms’. Some are looking at how retailers, for example, have responded to an analysis of the ‘new norms’ in the way customers want to shop these days. In a word, locally.

But have we done enough thinking about the new or emerging norms in FE? Do we know enough about what students want from it? Do we know enough about the learning experience of young people at primary school or playgroup? They will be coming through to FE in the next decade or so. Do we know enough about the prior learning and life experience of migrants, or the adult returners often scarred long ago by their experience of school?

This is not ‘futures thinking’, it is about the here and now. One of my callers advised me to read David Price’s Open: How We’ll Work and Learn in the Future (2013). This very readable book argues that we are already in quite a different world in terms of how technology allows many of us to learn together collaboratively in ways we as human beings clearly want to.

There’s a lot in this for educationalists, I think. Not just in terms of how we think strategically about our own institutions, but also the potential to help other sectors develop. If what we know about is learning—if we are leaders in learning—and if learning is what is required, then there must be opportunities as well as threats.

The big question in all this is: what are the new norms as opposed to mere trends or fashions? For example, the vast majority of new jobs in some parts of London have been created in SMEs or through self-employment. New norm or just a passing trend? In other parts of the country most new jobs have been taken up by migrants. Norm or trend? Does this require the agility that FE is famous for? Or does it require some more hard thinking about how FE works?

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