Why colleges must collaborate rather than compete

Jul 27, 2014 by

‘Collaboration is the key to world class education, not competition.’ Deputy principal Nick Isles reflects on what UK further education can learn from the US

In May, I was part of a group of vice chancellors that visited America to learn how its education institutions are tackling the challenges of globalisation.

The visit offered a window into Chicago’s higher education system, including the city’s community colleges. How is this powerful city tackling the challenges of increased global competition in education? And how is it responding to local needs in a fast-changing technological and economic environment?

I expected to see increasing competition. It has been the motif of David Willetts’ tenure as universities minister and the University of Chicago is, after all, the home to the economics department that came up with many of the free-market neo-liberal nostrums that have dominated policy for more than 30 years. But what I found was a collaboration that uses big data to foster an education system which competes globally and delivers locally.

Like UK further education colleges, US community colleges serve their local communities and offer everything from welfare-to-work access training, through to associate degrees that are equivalent to a foundation degree in the UK. Where they differ is in the ways they engage with the demand side of provision. Unlike here, local employers are part of the formal curriculum development process, usually via business advisory boards that meet once or twice a year.

The views of employers are not confined to these more formal meetings, however. Sessions to keep in touch with businesses are held weekly through breakfast events and evening meetings that involve industry speakers. The Chicago community colleges I visited were serious about business and invested heavily in engaging professionals who would have been happily hired by most FTSE 100 companies. In Chicago, the companies being engaged are global multinationals as well as local start-ups.

One of the things I was most impressed by on my visit was the way colleges in Chicago grouped together to resource a centralised process for analysing the future labour market. By utilising a data system developed by a company called EMSI (a system that we use at Milton Keynes College) and other federal, state and city data, colleges were able to make fairly accurate predictions of areas where there will be a growth in jobs. Analysis identified six sectors likely to generate 80% of all new jobs in Chicago over the next decade and colleges looked at a wide range of job descriptions in these sectors, as well as seeking out person specifications from employers to better define the required core competencies and technical skills needed.

And Chicago colleges are going even further with this data. These institutions put a big premium on building the right eco-system for the region – each college draws on the labour market information and its geographical position to develop key sector-specific specialisms. This means high degrees of collaboration, rather than competition. Each college is responsible for developing the most relevant sector specialism depending on which industry cluster it relates to the most. This is the opposite of what is happening in the UK, where institutional competition is seen as the best way of improving quality

Finally, the community colleges I visited had world class facilities. Their levels of investment are driven by genuine partnerships and philanthropy. In the UK, our investment is patchy with too many further education colleges lacking the sort of facilities employers would expect to see. We need to learn from this and be more demanding of our communities and local enterprise partnerships to help secure the resources we need.

My short visit to Chicago opened my eyes to a different way of carrying out the business of education. I saw a system driven by the analysis of big data, engaged with local needs and strongly attached to employers. What lessons have I take away from this? That collaboration is the key to world class education, not competition. That engaging businesses is about co-production and mutual respect. Our policy in the UK must shift towards understanding this.

via Lessons from America: why colleges must collaborate rather than compete | Education | Guardian Professional.

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