With the public purse strings stretched ever-tighter, FE is feeling the pinch. Colleges, many of whom already have enviable reputations for their financial innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, are reaching out further and further in their quests to widen both their offer and their revenue streams.
Over the past two decades, government has driven reform and expansion, frequently using the sector as the deliverer of centrally controlled, centrally administered policies. Now, though, the calls of the sector are being heeded, and providers are being given more freedom to make decisions. Although funding and performance management systems still lag behind the rhetoric, the direction of change is clear - the sector is being invited to map its own path. This new-found freedom is undoubtedly double-edged. Along with opportunity comes real risk – the risk that any provider failing to get both its offer and its marketing mix right will find it hard to survive. But the potential for the sector if it succeeds in setting the direction is enormous.
For almost all learners, training – of any type – is about choices and chances. A choice of career opportunities, rather than just taking what they can get. The chance to progress through the echelons of that career, and to expand their knowledge, skills and earning potential en route. Providers which recognise this will be well-placed to make the most of the new freedoms on offer.
In a system where employability and employment skills are lauded employers, clearly, are key. Yet in the same way as we need to stop thinking of colleges as passive providers of centrally administered policies, we need to stop thinking of employers as the "done to". Instead, employers should become the owners of the training and skills agenda – not in the mealy-mouthed way that has been tried in the past, but in a way which demotes government to a supporting role, rather than the star turn.
At the moment, no amount of figure-fudging can disguise the fact that public investment in skills significantly exceeds private investment. Last year, public investment in post-16 education and skills stood at approximately £35 billion, private employer investment at £14.3 billion and individual investment at £7.6 billion. Not only is this unsustainable, but the top-heavy approach continues to discourage systemic change with the very real consequence that there remains a lack of alignment between government interventions and the needs of employers and colleges.
Bluntly, businesses have traditionally been given subsidies to join well-intentioned government initiatives which are chopped and changed as priorities shift or get tweaked. The consequence is that often, business looks across at what government does with bewilderment and indifference, and fails to take ownership of their training needs. It has become somebody else's problem, with providers caught in the middle spending significant sums to engage employers in Government agendas.
I believe that sustainable change will require a shift in the balance of power. Government must incentivise businesses and providers to create their own solutions, not vice-versa. Public infrastructure and government services which have end-to-end responsibility for key services should be owned, led and funded as working partnerships of employers and providers. These working partners will agree targets for services, such as apprenticeships and work experience, and hence the priorities for public investment.
In terms of outcomes at ground level, I would expect to see increasing value and innovation brought to the provision of vocational training. Boundaries between employers and providers would be broken down as employers are recognised as both "employer" and "educator". Apprenticeships would take longer and would be supplemented by high-quality off-the-job training. Unions and employers would be encouraged, through fiscal incentives, to invest in social partnership models which would subsidise training for small businesses. Other incentives would encourage larger businesses to over-train apprentices, so that smaller employers could benefit from a ready supply of highly skills apprentice graduates.
Such an approach is undoubtedly radical, and will require hard work, determination and, most of all, trust. Yet for those who are prepared to make the commitment, the rewards are potentially huge. A chance to set the agenda, to take the power to create products and services which truly meet the needs of both employers and learners – shouldn't that what freedom is all about?
Tony Lau-Walker is chief executive of Eastleigh College and a newly-appointed Commissioner at the UK Commission for Employment and Skills