It takes two – making university and college relationships work

Universities and colleges have a lot in common. David Hughes and Richard Calvert ask what it would take to get them pulling in the same direction

David Hughes is Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges


Richard Calvert is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Strategy and Operations) at Sheffield Hallam University and Civic University Network strategic lead

Anyone will tell you that relationships can be hard, and that it takes two to make things work.

It’s a lesson which applies as much to the relationships between universities and colleges, as it does anywhere else.

There is magic to be made, but we need to work harder at it.

That’s the fundamental finding of a joint report, Going Further and Higher, published today by the Independent Commission on the College of the Future and Sheffield Hallam University, on behalf of the Civic University Network. Colleges and universities have fundamentally shared missions – supporting people, place, employers and the wider economy, but the relationships between them are too often undervalued and under-invested. And because collaboration is hard work, all too often, short term institutional interests drive competition to the loss of opportunities.

The report aims to understand why that’s the case, to suggest ways to overcome the barriers, and to build a much more joined-up system. Looking across the four nations, the report finds that there is much in common, and much to learn from what already exists.

Challenges and opportunities

Unequal investment, separate policies and a lack of clarity on the respective roles of universities and colleges has led to years of unnecessary tension and competition. Some may argue that this doesn’t matter, that institutional agendas come first, and that many colleges and universities will continue to thrive in a competitive world. That may be true, but as the challenges facing our countries and our communities grow, we question whether such an approach will genuinely meet future needs.

If things don’t change, institutions will continue to follow the money and fight for the same prospective students, rather than meeting the needs of a wider group of people and employers. Employers won’t be clear about who to trust for their skills and workforce needs, resulting in them struggling to develop a pipeline of the confident and skilled people they need. And delivering on local and regional priorities simply will not happen to its full potential, with local leaders and stakeholders having to navigate tensions and competing priorities.

This matters not just because it is inefficient and unwieldy, but because it will hamper colleges and universities from delivering their missions in light of the significant challenges ahead. Climate change, the pandemic, demographic shifts all require new solutions which colleges and universities must work on together. People and communities will miss out and employers will not get the support and skilled workforces they need to thrive.

The UK Government’s newly published Levelling Up White Paper rightly identifies increasing skills as one of its twelve missions – but it is clear that colleges and universities will be vital in delivering on many of the other missions. What is also clear is that true levelling up requires concerted effort across the post-18 education and skills landscape and that colleges and universities as anchor institutions have a key leadership role to play in that.

Taking a place-based approach

Our report looks at what underpins effective collaboration – a genuinely place-based approach with ambition, vision and commitment from leaders, moving beyond individual and transactional relationships, to a holistic offer for learners, employers and communities. But what else?

Geography is important, and leaders must decide on the broad economic geography that is appropriate for them – accepting that this is an imperfect science. Sector leaders can, over time, build and broaden the scope of joint work – starting from a place of strength. This could include pathways and progression, employer engagement, SME innovation and advice, workforce development, careers information, advice and guidance, regional development, and civic partnerships. And college and university leaders must seek ways to embed these relationships across their institutions – structurally and culturally – so that they are sustainable and valued at all levels.

Policy matters

There is much that can be done at an institutional level, but the policy environment also matters. There are emerging models from which we can learn and build – articulation agreements in Scotland, Curriculum Hubs in Northern Ireland, the emerging CTER reforms in Wales and Institutes of Technology in England.

But there’s also much further to go. Policy and funding frameworks can either ease or complicate local ways of working. The report makes the case for connected and integrated systems of “tertiary education and skills” across all post-16 providers and highlights how important policy levers are across funding, student finance, accountabilities, and strategies.

A call to arms

Education undoubtedly has the power to be transformative: for individuals, for businesses, for places and for society as a whole, but collaboratively that power is far greater. We need a fundamental shift, so that collaboration on the tertiary agenda is no longer seen as an optional extra, or necessary when times are tough but rather as a fundamental element of the day job for college and university leaders across the four nations.

There are lots of barriers to good collaboration – so it is difficult. It can be easy to simply spend leadership efforts on other compelling priorities. But healthy, long-term relationships between colleges and universities are not a cost to incur. Rather, they are an investment with enormous returns – for both institutions, their stakeholders and most importantly for achieving their missions for students, communities and employers. This vision for collaboration needs commitment, investment and a shared set of goals. It needs hard graft and time. We hope that this report explains why that effort is worth it and leads to more collaborations which deliver better opportunities and outcomes for many years to come.

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