FE colleges key to filling digital skills gap

It wasn’t so long ago that the UK’s Further Education (FE) colleges came in for a bit of stick following a House of Lords report into the UK’s digital future.

“Further education colleges need to move up a gear and provide industry-designed and endorsed short courses that are going to lead to a job,” said the report.

Fair enough, although the FE sector has had a tough ride in recent years. Consistent budget cuts since 2010 have left colleges short on resources and what usually happens when colleges are strapped for cash? They tend to focus on more popular tracts and jettison the courses that are less profitable.

The upshot is that the more niche, but very necessary technical and digital courses could disappear and with them any hope of filling important roles, particularly in the needy digital industries. In June, Professor Alison Wolf, a respected labour market expert and author of the Wolf review of vocational education expressed similar concerns in a new report entitled Heading for the Precipice.

In the report Wolf argues that FE colleges, in the face of continued budget cuts to fund Government apprenticeships plans, are essential for technical learning and qualifications.

“In post-19 education, we are producing vanishingly small numbers of higher technician level qualifications, while massively increasing the output of generalist bachelors degrees and low-level vocational qualifications,” says the report. “We are doing so because of the financial incentives and administrative structures that governments themselves have created, not because of labour market demand, and the imbalance looks set to worsen yet further. We therefore need, as a matter of urgency, to start thinking about post-19 funding and provision in a far more integrated way.”

So how do we do this?

One argument is to cut university funding. A recent story in the Times Educational Supplement suggested that universities, rather than competing with FE colleges for students should in fact recognise the role FE colleges play in boosting the whole education sector.

Higher Education Policy Institute director Nick Hillman believes that in many respects, FE colleges are better placed to meet the growing demand for higher-level technical qualifications than universities. He also believes that this could generate more potential students for universities. But if cutting university funding is unlikely then perhaps there needs to be more collaboration with HE colleges and with industry?

It was interesting to see how start-up innovation and education hub Edspace opened a new HQ at Hackney College in London earlier this year. Also Richmond upon Thames College's redevelopment has included the creation of a tech hub with industry contacts and mentoring. It is this sort of partnership and collaboration that will help drive change and improvements in relevant skills. FE colleges have the ability and flexibility to develop these partnerships and are key to the on-going struggle to meet skills deficits. In terms of competition with other institutions, it is not an either / or situation. We need to support the whole gamut of educational establishments and help them evolve alongside apprenticeships schemes. Years of tinkering with education must surely have taught us one thing - that there is after all, no one-size-fits-all solution.

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Supporting the government’s ‘Digital by Default’ strategy we’re keen everyone has the skills and confidence to use IT. Here, we share thoughts on a variety of digital matters.

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