It is a pleasure and privilege to be writing to you as the new Chair of the Association of Colleges. When I saw the role advertised almost a year ago now, I was excited about it for three reasons. I have enjoyed and really value the opportunity to work in membership organisations that derive their legitimacy and purpose from the members they serve. Having experienced the challenges facing an FE college over the past four years, the opportunity to work as part of a leadership team safeguarding the future of colleges at a national level mattered. And most importantly of all, it offered the opportunity to have an impact on the experience of learners as they access educational experiences which can transform their lives – in big and small ways. This really motivates me and is aligned to my own values, passion and personal experience of the power of education.
Before I worked in the FE sector, I had what you might describe as an eclectic career. I started out as an (accidental) serial entrepreneur, I then built a Non-Executive portfolio of board roles and for the past 15 years I’ve led large-scale transformation programmes in the public, private and third sectors. The common theme in all of this is a passion for learning, renewal and change, and without my local FE college, none of it would have been possible. They allowed me to return to study and continue my A Levels and access university after I had dropped out of my sixth form college to start my first business. I returned there to do two professional courses which paved the way for me becoming first a Chartered Director and then a Fellow of the Institute of Directors. I wouldn’t have had the experiences I’ve had today without my local college and the personal encouragement of great teachers and mentors.
So, it’s fair to say that it is a real honour for me to undertake this role in such an important organisation for our sector, our colleges and our students. We all face challenges every day in our colleges, but we work through them so that our students can benefit from high quality learning and support in their time with us.
Some challenges can be resolved locally, but others require a collective effort, and I’ve joined the AoC at a critical time. We all know that current funding levels are unsustainable, and the impact of funding cuts elsewhere in public services puts further strain on our limited resources. But there has never been a better time to make the case for change.
There are so many voices publicly speaking out in support of fair funding for colleges. From students to MPs from all parties, governors to trade unions, employers and business leaders, everyone is making the case for change. With the Augur review and, hopefully, the Comprehensive Spending Review in the year ahead, it feels like a pivotal moment for us.
When I look at my role in this, I see it quite simply. David leads the organisation and I lead the Board. The Board need to be satisfied that David and his team within the organisation are operating effectively, supporting you with information, advice and guidance through regions, networks and groups, and the ad hoc requests that come in every day. But the Board is also the strategic guiding mind of the organisation and we have a duty to consider what is required for the longer-term prosperity of the AoC and the members we serve.
That’s where the foresight and horizon scanning of the Board complement the influencing, lobbying and advocacy work of David and his team. How do we shape the AoC and the sector for the future so that it is valued, sustainable and seen as a vital part of society and local communities? How do we ensure that as a Board, we are committed to our own development and renewal to provide that leadership role – for our members and our sector?
The formal Board meeting this month was prefaced with an away day to reflect on just that (you can access a summary of the meeting here). How do we ensure that we maintain our strategic focus on the AoC of the future and deliver best on the organisation’s objectives to promote and support colleges, lobbying and influencing policy on behalf of our members, creating advocacy and support?
We considered two items of significant strategic importance for us all. Firstly, the Commission on the College of the Future, independent in nature, but convened by us. The aim of this Commission is to draw on evidence and insight to create a blueprint for the College of the future, building on learning from across the four nations in the United Kingdom. And secondly, we reflected on how we build on the momentum from the #LoveOurColleges Campaign in such a critical year for the sector. Whilst the range of voices making the case for supporting Further Education are growing, we still need to do more to engage with governors, employers, and those MPs with influence in the Treasury. This will give us the best possible chance for success in the inevitable competition from many areas on a fixed sum of money available in the spending review. Every Board member committed to ensuring that they create events and activities in the critical campaign week of 13-17 May and I would encourage you to do the same. We will be releasing more information about our plans very soon.
Leading when things are straightforward is easy, but leading when things are hard requires courage, vision, ambition and energy. I know only too well that the day to day challenges in every college are demanding in terms of your time. But if every college could engage with the campaigning activity in the coming months, we will harness that unique power we have as a membership organisation. It will give our demands credibility when we can say that we are all engaged and prevents those who would not want us to succeed being able to say that we are not all as one on this critical issue.
I’ve been getting out to the regional events and meeting members and you’ll see me continuing to do that throughout the year, listening to your ideas on all areas of our work. I’ll also write to you after each of our quarterly Board meetings to keep you updated on our work and share my views on priorities and what I’m up to. I’m keen to have a dialogue with as many members as possible, so if you’ve got something you want to share with me outside of formal events, you can always contact me via email - it’s always a pleasure to hear from you. You can also follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Julie Nerney, AoC Chair