Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, Weston-super-Mare

Every College academic year is different and the level of challenges facing the sector is at an unprecedented high. Equally, individual Colleges will face their own issues whether it be recruitment, funding or unique changes to the profile of a particular institution. At Weston College the management team approached the 2012/13 Academic year with rigour, particularly recognising the challenges of HE in FE, impact and changes in the Quality Assurance Agenda, growing markets and also a new contract for Offender Learning. I would love to say that processes are smooth with regard to these changes but inevitably there are issues…

The decision of Government to allow the development of Higher Education within Further Education Colleges has been a significant value added injection to the College sector but it has been compounded by the fees fiasco which has led to many Universities and Colleges seeing unfilled places occurring across the UK. I have no doubt that this was a purposeful strategy which aimed to raise quality and it is clear that it is working to a level, although to my mind there is still insufficient attention to the issue of Quality and quality of learner experience.  Even in the recent bids for direct numbers for delivery of HE one couldn’t but think a lottery was in place rather than an analysis on how learners themselves are benefiting and achieving in their degree course of study. I may bemoan the limitations of the Ofsted quality regime but one cannot argue that its focus is on learner experience. The changes in the institutional review of Higher Education (IQER) do suggest that the Ofsted view and influence is permeating the HE world.

So how has my College faced up to the challenges of HE in FE? With dynamism, integrity and entrepreneurship, I would respond. The dynamic leadership of HE in my College where there is full understanding of the Government agenda has enabled us to meet targets, develop new routes of study and achieve a first class honours degree rate of 20 per cent well in excess of the sector norms. The environment from a delivery perspective is not for the faint hearted but progress is good and the extra places allocated for high performance students has really helped our recruitment drive. If you want to approach the HE agenda with integrity then you have to be mindful that learners must get the very best from their course and that progression to employment figures need to be superb. It is interesting to note however that both FE and HE need to change rapidly to ensure a real focus on enterprise skills and further involvement in the STEM agenda.

So yes, I think we can tick the HE in FE box - although I suggest using a pencil - and as I am unsure the Government are quite clear yet on what they want. I do get irritated however by the phrase ‘widening participation’ used by some Universities. I am very lucky to work with two Universities, namely Bath Spa and the University of the West of England, who have tremendous focus on the widening participation agenda. Equally I have experienced others who need a real kick up the backside from Central Government because they have literally no idea or indeed the will to tackle such an issue. It is very disappointing that here in a country facing recession that some Universities are allowed to get away with such discriminatory practice. Equal opportunities – give me a break!

Well we’ve had a canter through quite a bit of FE news of late and can I also thank those who are writing in to update me on issues current to FE across the UK. We need to sell and raise the profile of FE (how many times have you heard that said?!) but innately we know in the sector that if the Government got out more to look at FE they might understand it better. Anyway I’ll do some research and see what can be done.

I will close this month’s update by talking about the Learning Difficulty and Disability (LDD) agenda and the changes proposed by funding agencies to streamline the approach for the future. The process is to my mind flawed in part – streamlining usually means less money and more bureaucracy in my opinion. But no, it’s not to get the missiles out to attack them but actually to praise them. This is because the EFA have part funded a new facility in my neck of the woods to really prove that we are ‘Ambitious about Autism’. It is a new venture that puts learners first, is ‘owned’ from a concept perspective by a range of agencies including the Local Authority and lead by my College. The facility will be fully operational by November this year and is a real example of partnership working across and within sectors. A real result!

Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, Weston-super-Mare

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