Over the past nine months I have visited numerous further education colleges and met with a wide range of staff and learners. I have also attended several conferences and listened to politicians and representatives of funding bodies.
Further Education colleges are vitally important. They are responsible for educating millions of young people each year and in many cases they will be the last step before entering the world of work. How they prepare their students directly affects the learners’ lives and also the prosperity of our society.
Unfortunately the sector is experiencing real challenges. Funding is getting cut, targets harder and meanwhile many operating overheads are difficult to reduce. Often properties were designed many years ago and are both expensive to maintain and inflexible. The students they are helping are facing a harsh jobs market where work is scarce and tenure uncertain.
All of these are problems that would tax even the best of managers. But to make matters worse colleges have another major challenge.
Two well known business maxims are “Deliver what the customer wants” and “He who pays the piper calls the tune”. For colleges the customer can be the learner or the employers that hire the college’s students. Meanwhile the paymaster is a bureaucratic government department operating under national policies set by the government of the day.
So college leaders are pushed and pulled between competing interests. In some colleges this is very apparent and their future does not look good. Death by a thousand cuts until a forced merger puts them out of their misery. Other colleges are coping better. Sometimes this is fortunate geography creating opportunity and sometimes it is just a question of better leadership.
I have a simple perspective. The product that really counts is talented students. Produce confident, capable and highly employable students and the college has a viable future. It will have a sought after ‘product’ and when there is strong demand the money normally follows. Just ask Apple.