Alternative models for running colleges have been under discussion ever since the previous administration raised concerns over traditional mergers. Whilst the debate raged, LSN decided to get on and do things differently. The result was that this August marked a unique joint venture – a first for the FE sector.
Reading College launched last month as the first FE college jointly run by another college, in conjunction with a third sector organisation. Along with LSN, a not-for-profit charity and experts in supporting learning, Reading is being run by Oxford and Cherwell Valley College (OCVC), a successful and well established education provider.
Sector experts now view the involvement of external organisations as an effective alternative to traditional mergers, enabling institutions to share financial risks whilst providing the outside expertise necessary to attract funding and ensure colleges are getting maximum value from existing resources. Against a backdrop of funding reductions and the realisation that merging with a wealthier college may not always be a viable option, external management is increasingly seen as a practical way forward for cash-strapped colleges.
Between them, LSN and OCVC have decades of experience supporting and managing FE respectively, and the partnership could be viewed as a local solution with national support.
Before the joint venture took over in August, Reading College had been part of Thames Valley University. The partnership now running the College is pooling its expertise to create a vocationally-orientated college that meets local needs and adds value to students through its unique and unrivalled combination of knowledge and experience of the FE environment.
The joint venture partnership offers the practical experience of merging and transforming FE colleges brought by OCVC, combined with LSN's experience delivering national performance and quality improvement programmes. In addition, the joint venture is rolling out a shared services support programme designed to meet the funding challenges of 2010 and beyond.
There is strong evidence to suggest this new partnership will work. The model brings greater resources and through the shared services offering can also deliver economies of scale, freeing up more money for what matters most – teaching and learning. At a time when most colleges are having to make ends meets with reduced funding, the option of shared services can help by reducing back office costs and improving efficiency.
Along with shared services, Reading College now has the option to call upon LSN's extensive resources, expertise and experience, which can help to ensure that its systems and approaches are fit for purpose and allow the College to fast track any high priority improvements.
Many in the sector will be keenly watching the progress of Reading College over the course of its inaugural academic year. Because the key purpose of any college is to meets the skills needs of local businesses and residents and to support the local economy, it is of paramount importance that the College meets, and even exceeds, the expectations of local people living and working in Reading. Beyond that, Reading College's success this year will be a key indicator of how well the joint venture and external management model could be implemented more broadly amongst UK colleges.
The future for the FE sector is uncertain. The funding outlook for colleges is likely to be very different after the comprehensive spending review on 20th October. At times like these, it's critical that colleges ensure their financial management is first rate, and that they have plans in place to deal with the funding squeeze.
OCVC is no stranger to change and holds a strong track record of delivering improvement in financial management. It was created as a result of a highly successful merger of three failing colleges in 2003 and has become expert in turnaround situations and improving the quality of provision. Such expertise will help move Reading College forward, make it a dynamic college and secure its future as the provider of choice for the Reading area.
The OCVC and LSN partnership aims to provide Reading with a modern college, led by an experienced team, which is in tune with the needs of learners and is responsive to its local community. While this new model is a somewhat different way of doing things, the signs are that its compelling mix of experience will aid in building a successful and innovative college that is in tune with its learners' and partners' needs.
John Stone is chief executive of LSN, the not-for-profit organisation focused on making learning work for further and higher education, local authorities and schools, public services, work-based learning and international organisations
Read other FE News articles by John Stone:
Spending review threatens FE participation