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Why colleges should think more deeply about their charitable status - Smita Jamdar

19 May 2022

Since their incorporation, further education colleges have been charities, a status which could and should have a profound impact on how they see their purpose and role. Perhaps because they were exempt from registration with the Charity Commission, their charitable status was a largely ignored factor when I first started advising them in the mid-1990s. Despite greater attention on demonstrating compliance with charity law over recent years, there still seems to be little consideration to how this core feature of their establishment could shape their strategies and their contribution to public benefit as comparatively powerful, autonomous local actors, in the circumstances that the United Kingdom finds itself in in the 2020s: a shortage of key skills, a worrying productivity gap, and unacceptable and dangerous levels of inequality.

The charitable purpose of colleges is the advancement of education, which includes vocational training, community education, the development of individual competences and skills, and research and adding to collective knowledge. Under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, the charitable objects of colleges are to provide further, higher, and in certain circumstances secondary education, and goods and services connected to those educational activities. Colleges have the power to do anything they consider necessary or expedient in connection with these activities.

The board of governors of an FE college are its charity trustees and obliged to ensure that everything it does furthers these objects and to ensure the efficient and effective use of its assets (including both its human and physical resources) for the public benefit and for its beneficiaries.

So how could these obligations help colleges to reflect on their purpose, mission and strategy?

Firstly, college leadership could reflect on who their college’s beneficiaries are and how the needs of each group are best met by the college’s activities. Such an approach enables tailored, detailed plans to be developed to reflect the needs of learners, the local economy and community interests. Within each beneficiary group, colleges can distinguish between those who are already relatively well served by government or other funding and then consider how their assets, resources and efforts could best be deployed to assist those who are missing out, even where no specific funding is available to meet these needs. This could be under-represented or hard to reach groups of learners, small businesses who need help with their productivity or in determining their training and skills needs, or community provision that meets very specific local challenges, for workshops to tackle tensions created by perceived grievances about immigration. Colleges may say they already do this, but a beneficiary-based approach switches the question from “how do we do the activities we are funded to do as well as we can?” to “what do all our beneficiaries need and how do we resource it if the funding is not forthcoming or lobby others to support us by making funds and resources available?”

Secondly, reflecting the status of colleges as charities that are closely bonded to their place, colleges could take the opportunity that the challenge of levelling-up presents to audit their role against the six capitals and the missions identified by government in its recent White Paper “Levelling Up the United Kingdom”. The six capitals were physical, human, intangible, financial, social and institutional. Colleges could define their “place” for the purposes of levelling-up, assess how that place performs in each of these six capitals and then develop a plan for the role they will play, as charities whose role is to advance education, in addressing the deficits. There will be some obvious areas, such as meeting any local skills needs, but there may be other areas, such as encouraging staff and students to become involved in the governance of local schools or civic organisations as part of the college’s wider commitment to social responsibility, encouraging arts and drama students to work on projects to improve social cohesion and sense of civic pride, or encouraging volunteering or service learning generally.

Similarly, the key missions identified of boosting and living standards, improving public services, restoring a sense of community, local pride and belonging and empowering local leaders and communities offer colleges a further prism through which to review and refine the delivery of their charitable objects.

The final area that a focus on a college’s charitable status could transform is in the area of collaboration. There may be some activities which are needed to support certain beneficiaries that a college could not afford to deliver on its own or does not have the expertise to deliver on its own. Its charitable status means it should be actively considering whether there are other organisations with whom it could have a greater impact in addressing beneficiary needs, and then to work with them in an effective way. Charities should actively avoid pointless competition; where competing delivers better outcomes for beneficiaries that should be the model, but otherwise collaboration should be considered. Sharing resources and services may also be a way to increase the amount of resource available for beneficiaries, although the costs of entering into such sharing arrangements need to be taken into account.

It may be that even where colleges have not explicitly considered their status as charities in determining their purpose, mission and strategy, they are all already doing everything they possibly could to meet the needs of all beneficiary groups in the best possible way. However, it is equally possible that reappraising institutional strategy through their identity as charities could throw up some overlooked or underserved beneficiaries and stimulate some creative and innovative thinking about how to meet their needs.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.