While the recent response to the Augar report may have answered some of the sector’s short-term questions, one of the longer-term issues which remains unresolved is the government’s ambition around re-balancing Higher and Further Education.
It’s a vexed question, and one to which there are few easy answers – not least at a time when government finances are under so much pressure.
But it’s also hard to see how ambitions around Levelling Up, both locally and nationally, can be addressed without looking at the coherence of tertiary education, and indeed the wider coherence of the educational landscape as a whole.
Some of the challenges, as well as some potential answers, lie in the recent joint report Going Further and Higher jointly written by Sheffield Hallam University, on behalf of the Civic University Network, and the Independent Commission on the College of the Future.
The report recognises that universities and colleges share much in terms of their underlying missions – supporting people, place, employers and the wider economy, but that the relationships between them are too often undervalued and under-invested.
The report examines why that’s the case, and suggests ways to overcome the barriers. Drawing on examples and ideas from across the UK, it offers approaches for building a much more joined-up system – both locally and at national levels.
There’s plenty of politics and policy here, and the report is a rich source for those who want to understand the different approaches across England and the devolved administrations. Indeed for those of us who spend much of our time looking at Westminster politics, it’s a timely reminder that policy thinking in the devolved administrations can provide some welcome alternatives. One of many examples – and picked up in a very timely way in Melanie Rimmer’s recent blog – is the current focus on developing a more joined-up tertiary system in Wales.
Nor do the report’s authors hold back from some ambitious recommendations to policy makers – setting out the case for connected and integrated systems of “tertiary education and skills” across all post-16 providers and highlighting how important policy levers are across funding, student finance, accountabilities, and strategies.
But the report is equally clear that, as sector leaders, we can’t hide behind difficult politics, or indeed the incoherence of much of the current regulatory or funding landscape. We can all make a difference at a local and regional level, and our choices about how to do so – or indeed not to do so – have real world consequences for learners, employers, communities and our local economies.
And that’s where the report has lessons and challenges for all of us.
It’s easy to identify reasons why closer local collaboration doesn’t happen, and why trust and confidence can be in short supply: perceptions of inequality in funding or status, disjointed accountability, lack of institutional headspace, and much more. We’ll all have our own stories and bear our own scars on this.
But it’s much harder to argue that closer collaboration really doesn’t matter. If you’re a learner, particularly from a disadvantaged background, wouldn’t a more coherent pathway through secondary and tertiary help you maximise your potential? Wouldn’t local employers benefit from a more joined-up local skills offer, or better business support? Aren’t their benefits to our wider communities from sharing facilities or approaches to wider engagement? Fundamentally, don’t we owe it to those who fund and support us to make a better job of working together?
Reflecting this, and alongside the wider policy analysis, the report has practical examples of where collaboration is working well, and how it’s making a difference.
Some, like the longstanding partnership between the University of Exeter and Exeter College, have strong strategic ambitions and have helped build a more coherent local ecosystem, including establishing an Institute of Technology and a Multi-Academy Trust.
Others focus on specific local themes. For example, the Colleges and Universities across Edinburgh City Region came together to deliver the Data Driven Innovation (DDI) skills programme. This brings together industry, universities, colleges, schools and other partners to increase the data skills of the city region population, including an integrated pipeline of skills development and progression routes into data careers.
And while each is different, there are some common characteristics of successful partnerships:
- Ambiguities in geography are embraced;
- Defined and agreed roles play to institutional strengths;
- Mutual trust is built between leaders and institutions, based on an honest assessment of areas of collaboration and potential competition;
- Dedicated effort is invested in creating clear pathways for students, including in careers information, advice and guidance and supporting transitions;
- Coordinated approaches to employer engagement; and
- Joined-up approaches to meeting local social and economic needs and national priorities.
The recommendations for sector leaders flow through from this, and involve taking shared responsibility for developing stronger place based approaches and geographies, building trust, and ensuring appropriate institutional investment. Many institutions are not starting from scratch in their collaboration, but there are opportunities to strengthen partnerships as they continue to develop.
There are lots of barriers to good collaboration. It can be easy simply to focus leadership efforts on other compelling priorities. But healthy, long-term relationships between colleges and universities are not a cost to incur. Rather, they are an investment with enormous returns – for both institutions, their stakeholders and most importantly for achieving their missions for students, communities and employers.
The Going Further and Higher report is a starting point for a more strategic conversation with sector and policy leaders, in each of the four nations, so that universities and colleges can realise the potential of our shared missions. The Civic University Network and the Independent Commission are planning bespoke workshops across the UK to develop these ideas further, and encourage colleagues to get in touch with the Civic University Network to share their own experiences and learnings for what works, as well as what doesn’t work, we that can continue to build our evidence base in this space.
This vision for a more aligned and collaborative skills system needs commitment, investment and a shared set of goals. This report explains why that effort is worth it and can deliver better opportunities and outcomes for many years to come.
Richard Calvert is Deputy-Vice-Chancellor (Strategy and Operations) at Sheffield Hallam University, and chairs the Civic University Network Partner Group