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Futureproofing College Provision: Meeting the needs of part-time learners and employers

17 February 2023

Mark McKenna - Founder and Managing Director, Mindful Education 

When speaking to college partners about part-time adult learning and apprenticeship provision, the analogy I keep coming back to is that it’s an iceberg.

At first glance, things don’t look to be too much of a concern. 

In fact, you may look across and say that 2023 has seen a positive start. UCAS announced last week that young people will soon be able to search and apply for apprenticeships via their platform, several combined authorities have raised AEB funding rates, and the new Lifelong Learning Bill has been tabled in Parliament, which will hopefully set out a more flexible, fairer system.

But underneath the surface, the picture is very different. 

It has become clear that the pandemic has permanently impacted the workplace and learner expectations when it comes to the accessibility, quality and flexibility of their skills training. These changes in expectations – when combined with the cost-of-living crisis – have formed a ‘triple threat’ for college leaders:

  • Staffing shortages and difficulties in recruiting tutors across professional qualifications
  • Distance learning provider expansion and the ongoing impact on college revenue
  • The increasing need to meet employer demand for hybrid apprenticeships, which match with their hybrid workforces.

It is a scary trio but – within professional subject areas at least – it is something that Mindful Education is ready to help colleges navigate, enabling partners to futureproof their provision.

Staffing shortages and the difficulty recruiting tutors across professional qualifications

With a market size of more than £350m per year, professional apprenticeships in areas such as accounting, management, business, law and HR are an essential part of college provision. These professional skills are needed across all industries and regions of the UK, so they should form part of every college’s skills agenda.

At the same time, colleges face increasing challenges to recruit and retain staff to deliver professional qualifications. The AoC report, ‘College Staffing Challenges in 2022’, highlighted that there were 6,000+ total job vacancies in England’s colleges – the highest total in over twenty years. It goes on to conclude: “It is clear that staff vacancy levels are reaching critical levels with unfilled positions having an impact on student experience, staff wellbeing and college costs.”

The report highlights some of the ways that colleges have used to improve recruitment levels. These include financial incentives such as ‘golden hellos’, flexible working or reduced hours, and a wider variety of recruitment channels. 

In addition to these approaches, colleges can increase their use of technology and alternative delivery models to streamline course delivery in order to free up staff. Blended learning courses, where part-time learners split study time between at-home learning and regular face-to-face classes, allow colleges to reduce in-class teaching time, making this an ideal option where there are shortages. Equally it can enable staff to re-focus their valuable teaching hours in other subject areas. 

The threat of distance learning and the ongoing impact on college revenue

FE colleges lost £5m in revenue to distance learning providers (DLPs) for AAT courses alone between 2018-19 and 2020-21. There are many factors at play here, not least the marketing tactics of DLPs who offer low cost courses with attractive payment plans, plus the impact of improved online technology and 5G availability, and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Colleges can counter this threat by offering high-quality blended learning provision, with focused marketing messages around strong achievement rates, the value of being part of a class that meets regularly with a college tutor, and the funding support available to learners. 

By effectively promoting the benefits of blended learning, while being rooted in their communities, colleges can offer an attractive alternative to distance learning that can protect or grow their market share. 

The need to meet employer and learner demand for hybrid apprenticeships

It’s clear that hybrid working patterns are now here to stay, with an August 2022 BBC report finding that UK workers are going into the office for an average of just 1.5 days a week. 

As a result, an increasing number of employers are seeking hybrid apprenticeships and work-based training to match the needs of their workforce. As well as demanding flexibility, employers are looking for online solutions that are high-quality, engaging and accessible. 

Employers now expect apprenticeship delivery to fit to their needs, making hybrid delivery models essential rather than a “nice to have”. It is this market shift that colleges need to respond and adapt to – both to win and retain apprenticeship work. 

Planning for the future

After the tumult of the pandemic, war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis, the start of 2023 is an opportunity for colleges to plan how they’ll meet these new challenges and expectations. With a clear understanding of the needs of their staff, learners and employers, college leaders will be well placed to start futureproofing their provisions for times ahead.