Lewis Cooper - Director, Independent Commission on the College of the Future

This article forms part of the LGA's Re-thinking local think piece series.

When we started the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, we anticipated key themes coming up throughout our work – including the need to revisit the case for lifetime learning, for colleges to play a more explicit role in business support and innovation and for reflection on the role colleges play as anchor institutions within their communities. These are longstanding challenges that have been catalogued across an array of reports and reviews – and we have learnt a great deal too by looking at the very best practices and policies across the four nations of the UK, as well as internationally. It is clear that we need systems renewal right across the UK.

COVID-19 has made these issues all the more urgent. With high levels of unemployment anticipated, flexible, modularised and accessible opportunities for people to upskill and retrain become critical. With many employers struggling to survive, long-standing regional inequalities and poor levels of productivity come into starker focus. And the crisis has focused many minds on endemic challenges like social isolation, community health and wellbeing and poverty.

Colleges need to be at the heart of our meeting these challenges – as centres of lifetime learning, in providing strategic support to employers with innovation and skills and as community hubs, addressing digital literacy and wellbeing. All too often, the impact of colleges is impeded rather than supported by the system within which they sit. This needs to change.  

But crucially, this change must also involve ongoing and indeed deeper collaborative working with local authorities – who share precisely the same vision and values, and who have suffered severely from a combination of funding cuts and increased expectations over the past decade. This means thinking imaginatively about new ways of sharing our resources and expertise, reaping the benefits of devolution where it exists and engendering an ethos of systems leadership – and it means using our collective voice for change at the national level too.

Colleges need to be at the heart of our meeting these challenges – as centres of lifetime learning, in providing strategic support to employers with innovation and skills and as community hubs, addressing digital literacy and wellbeing.

There are three particular ways in which we can take this forward, together.  

  1. Collective voice for national investment and systems renewal

As organisations, local government and colleges are by their very nature embedded in their communities – and they see challenges often before they come to national prominence. Colleges and local authorities have been struggling to meet the sharp rises in demands from people over recent months, and will share an understanding about the scale and type of challenge we face. We as sectors need to be assertive in the need for a skills-led, green recovery – and in the need for investment in both our colleges and local government as a crucial element of this.  

Of course investment is important, but it is not sufficient - at the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, we are clear that we need better joined-up policy making within each of the four nations – with closer alignment between economic strategy and policy across education and skills, health, sustainability and communities. This is critical if we are indeed to build back better.

  1. New collaborative partnerships between colleges, local authorities and other civic institutions

The pandemic has raised undoubted challenges, but it has also seen organisations come together in new and important ways. Colleges and local authorities have opened up their estates and resources to support the NHS, have come together in new ways to support vulnerable people and have shared learnings in the face of rapid digital transformation.

Alongside new and positive collaboration over the past four months, we have also seen examples where this failed to happen – and these examples are often instructive, offering an opportunity to reflect on what these challenges reveal, and the need for change.

Productive relationships must involve challenge. In England, we hear local governments and combined authorities highlight the competitive relationship that exists all too often between colleges, and with schools and universities – and colleges will describe challenges in working across local or combined authorities. Whilst some of this is unavoidable, and other elements a function of insufficient college funding -which requires coordinated lobbying at the national level, colleges and local government both have an opportunity and responsibility to put pressure on the other to coordinate better.

And while informal relationships and creative new ways of coming together are important, we also need to be developing new formal linkages – aligning strategic plans, and exploring new ways of coordinating policy collectively across a region, building on the best practices across City Deals in Wales and across the UK and incredibly exciting developments reaping the benefits of devolved powers. 

  1. Developing a culture of systems leadership

We have spent a lot of time at the Independent Commission on the College of the Future describing the need to develop systems leadership capacities across the college sector, and across civil society more broadly. This for us means an orientation which looks upwards and outwards, beyond institutional management with a focus on the wider good.

We have seen examples of systems leadership in spades from within our colleges and local authorities during the crisis, and this approach must be championed and developed as we come out of it. And a crisis often sees people work with new people, and form close relationships. There will be huge learnings across local government and education, and there is a common need, which we must be purposeful in drawing on. And given that this orientation is in the DNA of so many across colleges and local government, we also have a role in championing this approach more generally too. 

Across England and Wales, there is a real opportunity for a skills-led recovery to the ongoing crisis. This also lays the foundations for a more collaborative system, with communities empowered to respond to and anticipate challenges in their particular regional context, which is critical as we look at wider issues too – across the climate emergency, an aging population, Brexit and the changing world of work. We will be publishing our final report this autumn and look forward to working closely with colleagues across local government as we take this agenda forwards.