Association of Colleges conference 2013: colleges and innovation

Vince Cable recognises further education achievements and asks colleges to innovate more than ever at Association of Colleges conference.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Dr Vince Cable

Since the last AoC conference, I’ve been gathering further direct evidence of the great contribution that colleges are making to our skills base, to the economy and to the lives of students who pass through your doors.

At Oxford and Cherwell College, I was shown around the National School of Furniture Design, meeting apprentices at various levels of experience in the process of becoming craftsmen and women. At South Tyneside College, I saw students from the South Shields Marine School using advanced simulation tools to prepare for working on the bridge of a ship, and saw how a £3.6 million refurbishment grant is improving the main campus. And at Warwickshire College in June, I talked to apprentices from companies including Alstom and GE about the high quality of their courses in manufacturing for power generation.

Colleges and industrial strategy

Such direct encounters give me confidence that there’s plenty of life left in British manufacturing and that we should continue in our efforts to rebalance the economy.

Getting the industrial strategy off the ground, the main long-term vehicle for nudging the economy in the right direction, has been my main project over the past 12 months, and colleges have been an important contributor. Skills, of course, are a key theme running through all the sector strategies. It is also a specific pillar of the ‘International Education Strategy’ launched in July, as we seek to export UK expertise, including in FE provision and management, to markets around the world.

The AoC was closely involved in developing the education strategy, and I’ve been pleased to learn that it is already bearing fruit. To take just one excellent example, a consortium of The North East Surrey College of Technology, Burton and South Derbyshire College, and Highbury College in Portsmouth has recently secured a £75 million contract to run a women’s vocational training institute in Saudi Arabia.

Innovation and FE

Now, I know that Matthew Hancock has already spoken about progress over the past 12 months in important parts of the skills agenda: giving employers an even greater stake in the design and delivery of apprenticeships; the launch of traineeships to prepare young people for apprenticeships or for work; improving teaching and attainment in maths and English; culling sub-standard and superfluous qualifications from the system.

What I want to focus on this afternoon is innovation in FE, something I discussed recently with Martin Doel and other leaders from the sector.

It’s not hard to find examples of dynamism and originality right across the sector. Take employer ownership; for example, one of the fundamental principles underpinning the present reforms. Whether it’s Gateshead College’s simulated work facility for apprentices, located on-site at Nissan, or Colchester Institute’s programme with small- and medium-sized firms in Harwich to prepare trainees for jobs in the UK’s offshore wind industry, institutions are taking up the challenge of delivering the skills specifically demanded by local employers. Representatives of Local Enterprise Partnerships are taking up seats on college boards, and vice versa, as a means to forging more productive links.

And yet this effort needs to go further. It needs to be more varied, more widespread; and the government is providing the resources to make that happen.

Additional capital funding for FE

As part of the spending round in June, we made a £500 million skills contribution to the Local Growth Fund for 2015 to 2016, including £330 million of capital funding for Local Enterprise Partnerships to use in tackling local skills priorities.

Today, I’m pleased to announce that a further £330 million of skills capital funding will be available through the Local Growth Fund in 2016 to 2017 for the same purpose, addressing specific skills needs currently holding back economic expansion.

So it is imperative for colleges and LEPs to join forces now on strong proposals for skills investment, ahead of LEPs’ Growth Deal negotiations with central government; including for a share of the Local Growth Fund.

The goal here is to give colleges and LEPs greater long-term certainty regarding how skills capital will be made available in future. Taken together, the college capital investment funds and the skills capital element of the Local Growth Fund represent a government commitment of over £1.5 billion since May 2010; of that, £730 million from the capital investment funds has enabled projects across the country worth more than £2.2 billion.

Showcasing more of FE

But just as investment is essential to stimulate innovation, it is also vital that more people know about these better ways of doing things.

Over the summer, I visited Hull College, whose Construction School is part of a wonderful social housing project through which its apprentices refurbish derelict housing to provide accommodation for families on low incomes. As colleges take advantage of the greater autonomy available to respond to the needs of business, there will be increasing numbers of intelligent schemes like Hull’s.

On the one hand, it is useful for other colleges could learn about positive approaches that they might emulate. On the other hand, I’d like you to grab proper recognition for schemes as inspired and inspiring as this one.

This time last year, I spoke to you about an image problem for FE, of a snobbishness that still wafts around, however unjustified it may be. That snobbishness has yet to evaporate, not least in central government. Unlike Parliament, where MPs are familiar with the work of their local college and always justifiably proud of it, there is a noticeable ignorance around Whitehall concerning the sector as a whole. I and my colleagues in BIS are fighting it, but it is up to the sector itself to shoulder the greater part of the burden.

For instance, plenty of colleges provide training to prestigious companies, both UK and foreign owned; but my impression, and I’m not alone in this, is that those links are barely publicised. More broadly, it seems to me that where university vice chancellors have become much less reticent in recent years when it comes to promoting their institutions, college principals are still erring too much on the side of modesty.

Look across the Atlantic, where American institutions are quick to trumpet their successes as agents of economic growth and social progress. That is one way in which they justify the public money they receive. I’m not suggesting you all adopt a ‘Mad Men’ hard sell, but many of you have a great story to share.

Remember, too, that performance in colleges has improved year on year for the last 3 years, with two thirds of colleges now rated either good or outstanding. FE cannot rest on its laurels. The Education and Training Foundation is there to help institutions that need it, and the FE Commissioner is on hand to tackle failure. But equally, we should be showcasing all that is positive and progressive to get more colleges delivering at the standard of the best.

Learning technologies

One area obviously ripe for innovation is in the use of learning technologies, and, again; it’s certainly true that parts of the sector are doing interesting things; more so, arguably, than in HE.

Last year, the Jisc Innovation through Technology programme funded projects at various institutions, such as Henshaws College in Harrogate, which is making common applications like YouTube and leading email platforms readily accessible to learners with disabilities.

Jisc is running the programme again this year, with an emphasis on overcoming barriers to the adoption of technology in the sector. It is a relevant point, for what’s needed isn’t simply the take-up of brand new applications but greater awareness of existing technologies. College staff need time and support to learn how to use them properly, which is surely as important to any institution’s long-term planning as the introduction of something new.

With a more broader remit, the Learning Technology Action Group, FELTAG, is looking at how to ensure the regulatory and funding systems fully support the adoption of new methods, provide decent training in their use and improve connectivity across the FE estate. FELTAG has posted its initial recommendations for online discussion.

Additional investment in broadband

It is also the case that genuine progress on technological capability requires broadband infrastructure that is fit for purpose. Research conducted by AoC, Jisc and BIS has found that many colleges currently have problems; not so much with insufficient bandwidth, but with the resilience of their broadband connections.

Which is why we have agreed to finance improvements to broadband in colleges. Matthew Hancock announced yesterday that BIS will fund colleges to install second broadband connections; should they wish to do so and are able to cover the running costs; and fund other institutions to maximise the effective use of existing provision, including upgrades to bandwidth.

We are currently finalising the detail with Jisc and the AoC and hope to launch the scheme before the end of the year.


To sum up, I am pleased with the direction in which the sector is clearly heading. Demand for apprenticeships continues to grow, with a third more online applications to the National Apprenticeship Service last year than the year before. In 2012 to 2013, the provisional figures show almost 3.25 million adult learners taking FE courses. And, as I happily acknowledged at the AoC’s HE in FE conference back in March, foundation degrees are proving extremely popular and successful.

We must continue to forge ahead. For instance, we need to work with colleges; and with universities and employers, to achieve further growth in high level apprenticeship numbers. It is part and parcel of creating genuine vocational pathways that take young people from subject choices at age 14 to full professional competence as adults.

In doing so, we can make vocational education truly valued in its own right; and forever banish that notion that it somehow serves to mop up people who don’t fancy an academic education; making something that is aspirational and competitive, as well as socially inclusive.

We often talk about what further education does to reach out to the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. This will always be important, always a justified source of pride for you. But I want vocational education to be attractive to everyone, to be seen as a route to professional success and an excellent preparation for life.

That, I believe, was the spirit of the IPPR report issued over the summer, which highlighted the importance of advanced vocational training to our economy and the role of the larger FE colleges in providing it. Higher education is not just about academic university degrees. It encompasses advanced vocational courses designed by employers, which are frequently delivered at an FE college and taken by students on an apprenticeship programme that might run all the way from HND level through to a Masters degree.

This isn’t about decrying academic learning. It is about making vocational education the peer of academic education, about having the two combine effectively to offer good opportunities for every prospective student.

I know that everyone in this room will want to join in making this happen.

Published 21 November 2013