A long and stimulating weekend in Canada

By David Hughes on

There are so many ways to spend a bank holiday weekend – DIY, gardening, eating, drinking etc.  My Mayday weekend was spent with around 800 others in a conference centre in Ottawa.  While maybe not an obvious choice, the reason was to be part of the annual conference of Colleges and Institutes Canada, a sister organisation of the Association of Colleges (AoC).

Despite being on the other side of the Atlantic, the topics of conversation, challenges, frustrations and opportunities felt very familiar. Resources, funding and regulation were common topics. As was disquiet at the lack of investment, the need for more flexibility and the challenges of engaging employers in productive partnerships. What shone through, just as with AoC’s Annual Conference each year, is the exceptional work colleges are doing and the opportunities they offer.

What was particularly interesting was where there are differences, for instance around applied research. It’s clearly a big thing for colleges in Canada, involving college staff and students supporting local businesses to address their challenges, implement new technology and seek out new opportunities. It is funded by the provincial governments who are naturally keen to support SMEs to be more successful, to adopt new technologies and to move up the value chain. It also seems to be very popular with staff in colleges who get a lot out of the engagement. For students, there are clear benefits -  applied and experiential learning relevant to the labour market, providing them with good CV materials when they look for jobs. Maybe this is something we need to push more in devolution deals and with the Government?

Other international discussion included a research project being led by Australian organisations NCVER and TAFE Directors, which focuses on measuring the return on investment for technical and vocational education and training (TVET).  The research is for UNESCO-UNEVOC (UN Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training) working across the globe to support the Millennium Development Goals. At a simple level this could provide a tool to persuade Government to invest, but it could also help colleges to assess the impact of different programmes as a way of helping continuous improvement and help students assess the worth of a course.

Often the RoI focus is on economic/financial returns – wages, employment, labour market participation, productivity. But it can be and should be more than that. At the local level, this might be a great tool to engage combined/local authorities and LEPs in considering the wider benefits of college investment – social inclusion, well-being, mental health as well as the more obvious economic indicators.

UNEVOC is also supporting more work on evaluating levy-type funding across a big group of countries, and wanting to use the RoI work to help make assessments. What surprised me, just as our apprenticeship levy was launched, was the number of countries which have a levy in place now, something of a trend.

The other reason for my journey to Ottawa was to be part of the AGM and retreat of the World Federation of Colleges and Polytechnics (WFCP). The WFCP brings together a range of organisations like AoC, as well as colleges from around the world. It has strong support from USA, Canada, UK, Australia, Brazil, China and others.

Much of the discussion was considering the focus for the next few years. For me, WFCP can help in three basic but important ways. Firstly, it’s a place to share experiences, intelligence, ideas and thinking about colleges and what colleges do. Secondly, it can provide a platform for us internationally to promote how colleges are vital to the future of every economy, in so many ways, with the likes of the OECD, World Bank, UNESCO and others. Thirdly, it is a great place to build relationships with those countries, like China and Brazil, who are keen to get help and support from colleges in the UK, and have the funds to support the work. It has potential and it does a lot given how meagre the resource is; I think our job at AoC is to support it and see how we can make sure that it delivers more. Every two years it has a World Congress. We’ll be helping to design a conference for Melbourne in October 2018 which is attractive to UK colleges and will share more information over the coming months.

All in all it was a useful way to spend a bank holiday weekend – being part of great discussions and building relationships which in turn will help our colleges in the years to come.  With the weather ranging from 26 degrees down to two and having around 30-40mm of rain it also felt like a very British bank holiday weekend.