Overcoming FE and HE silos to build an education ecosystem

Former skills and apprenticeships minister Anne Milton makes the case for the ramping up of collaboration between further and higher education in the interests of places, and learners

Anne Milton is a freelance consultant, and associate at KPMG

When asked what further education and higher education collaboration looks like my mind goes back to my former life in the NHS.

The constant cries that: “health and social care really need to be more joined up/work closer together/ collaborate” have gone unheeded despite the continued agreement from governments of all political persuasions over decades, that this needed to happen. Yes, some progress has been achieved but it is nowhere near sufficient to have an impact on the users of the services.

The cry for FE and HE collaboration is now similarly starting to echo in my life. I sincerely hope that the economic and social benefits that can be derived from collaboration will shine through and overcome any of the perceived barriers that it is believed stand in the way of what is essential progress.

After all, the case for collaboration has been made for two decades and probably longer.

Go back three years and you can find universities minister Sam Gyimah talking about wanting “colleges, universities, business and industry to work together to ensure our education and training system is giving young people the skills they need to succeed.”

Go back nine years and you can find commentary that colleges need to be clearer about what makes them distinctive, and that the HE sector needs to recognise that colleges bring something distinctive and valuable to the table.

Go back 20 years and you can find commentary on research that concludes that the culture differences between HE and FE can be a strength of collaborative provision and that “information and communication technology” has the potential to support such provision.

The case for collaboration

Collaboration is the way we solve the skills shortages that we have. If you look at educational attainment we have a huge supply of untapped potential among our adult population. We have large numbers of adults who with the right retraining and upskilling could solve our skills shortages – and the UK is not alone.

I visited the World Skills competition and conference in Abu Dhabi in 2017 and heard education ministers from across the world talk of the shortages they face. Those skills shortages will not be solved unless FE and HE come out of their silos, work together and take an approach that enables people to get the skills they need and the country needs, so we can compete globally.

The age of institutional silos is surely over. Post Covid we are at a “phoenix from the ashes” moment. A year of virtual working has shown us that the barriers that we previously envisaged can easily be torn down and FE and HE can work in a different way.

Collaboration really matters. We need to be unleashing the potential skills of thousands of people who could be working in higher skilled jobs, earning more money and having better jobs and careers. If post 16 institutions work alongside each other using their individual strengths and filling each other’s gaps in provision they will offer greater opportunity together than they can ever offer working alone.

There is no fixed blueprint for FE and HE to work together, nor should government set one out – universities and colleges must find ways that work for them both. There is huge variation among individual universities and similarly amongst further education providers. One size most certainly won’t fit all – they should do what works for them in their local area.

There may, however, be some best practice from which to learn, how some of the common challenges in collaboration can be overcome, and what opportunities can result – but any prescription as to how the collaboration should work is doomed to fail.

What does good collaboration look like?

Great collaboration should be evaluated on results. It’s where learners and students get the education and teaching that they need, at the most appropriate location, from the most appropriate staff to deliver that teaching.

Prior learning and attainment of local populations will vary significantly so there will similarly be variable educational uplifts needed from the institutions best suited for that learning. Moving seamlessly from one institution to another is essential to provide an easy route for all so they can follow mapped job and career paths. Collaboration has to be centred around the needs of the individual, not the institutions.

Good collaboration needs highly motivated people and good leadership. All of those working in the FE and HE sectors believe that the job they do is invaluable to those that they teach – they believe in the mission of their organisation. But change is never easy. The benefits and opportunities need to be sold to the staff so that all are working together for a common purpose. We need leaders in those organisations to be committed to the benefits and collaboration will not happen until the real and tangible benefit is fully understood by those at the top.

The current government has made some strong statements about its focus on skills, retraining and upskilling. Waiting on government to force change can be a dangerous game. It is all too easy to say it’s much too difficult, that despite the benefits that could be derived there are still barriers in the way. We know that the way funding streams are set up can make post-18 education more competitive than collaborative, and government should consider ways to overcome this to create the best conditions for effective collaboration.

But if FE and HE really want to do the job they were set up to do, start that collaboration now. There are superb examples around the country. London South Bank University developed a model of FE/HE collaboration three years ago. In May in Manchester nine FE institutions and five HE institutions have come together to address regional skills and economic challenges.

As apprenticeships and skills minister I saw at first hand the changes that can be achieved through education and training opportunities. I saw young people and adults who had left school with no qualifications complete degree courses, and get on career paths that transformed their lives. Many had been given a second, and sometimes third chance, by an institution or employer who saw their potential.

If we want to level up this country, and make sure everyone gets these opportunities, it will only come about by a collective and collaborative vision from the educational institutions and leadership from the top.

Do this and we will be on a path to getting the skilled work force the country needs and a more equal opportunity for individuals to have a rewarding job and career.

This article is published as part of a series produced in association with KPMG. Except where otherwise indicated the views expressed are those of the author and not of KPMG. 

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