The key to solving the skills gap is to let colleges deliver higher education

Aug 10, 2014 by

There is a clear role for colleges in the higher education market, developing vocational and technical degrees for local and regional economies

Employers, ministers and the Confederation of British Industry all agree on one thing – unless we can make significant inroads into plugging the skills gap, long-term economic recovery is doomed.

In the past two years, there’s been a wealth of reports on how the skills system is broken, with the disconnect between vocational training and jobs heavily criticised. But the solution does not lie in new policies and training institutions, it is already in existence in the further education sector.

The delivery of higher education by colleges offers real opportunities for tackling the skills crisis. Unless colleges are given adequate support, however, the great strides we could make in developing British industry and tackling unemployment will be lost.

Three colleges – New College Durham, Grimsby Institute and my own, Newcastle College – have been given foundation degree awarding powers by the privy council. This means we can develop and validate our own foundation degrees without needing a university partner. This allows us to work in collaboration with employers to identify the specific skills they need.

Our degrees are built around students gaining knowledge of industry through work placements and partnerships with employers. This helps students to develop contacts, demonstrate their potential and secure jobs: 93% graduates go straight into employment or post-graduate technical training. About 70% taking higher education courses live within 25 miles of their college and can play a powerful role in how local businesses develop.

Although this helps to prepare people for work more effectively, we still need to do more. College based higher education is changing, but not fast enough. One thing I’d like to see is a change in legislation that would mean colleges with awarding powers are able to accredit foundation degrees for other colleges. This would enable more colleges to run courses specifically aimed at the local job market. I’d also like to see a small number of colleges achieving taught degree awarding powers, which would give them the ability to develop and accredit BAs, BScs and masters. There is a clear role for colleges in the higher education market – vocational and technical degrees developed specifically for local and regional economies – and we need to explore this as much as possible.

We also need better support for colleges wanting to do research. At my college we’ll be launching our applied research centre in the autumn. Colleges are not currently allowed to bid for any higher education research grants or capital grants from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. But access to some of this funding would be transformational in accelerating the research work colleges could do.

The UK is behind the curve here. In the US and Canada there are highly successful models where strong government support and incentivising employers has led to the creation of sustainable research centres that are particularly instrumental in strengthening small businesses.

A final change that would ensure the UK makes real headway in preparing its young people for work would be to provide financial support to part-time students. Colleges were previously very successful in engaging part-time higher education students looking to upskill or change career, but have seen a dramatic decline in applications since the introduction of tuition fees. Part-time students are often the hardest to reach; they’re likely to be living in low income households, be women with families to support, and have no family history of participation in higher education. We must ensure that these students are better supported – we cannot afford to knowingly let this huge talent pool go to waste.

via The key to solving the skills gap is to let colleges deliver higher education | Education | Guardian Professional.

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