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BLOG: The College Alliance International Conference 2024

04 March 2024

Author: Olly Newton - Edge Foundation


The College Alliance, formerly the Four Nations College Alliance, represents a much-needed meeting of minds for the Further Education (FE) sector. Established in 2017 with support from Edge and led by the Association of Colleges, the Alliance unites college principals and senior policymakers, providing a safe space to engage in policy discussions that directly impact the sector. It also presents an opportunity to exchange best practice from the front line. A prime example is the development of tertiary education. Evaluating the impact of the Welsh Senedd’s Tertiary Education and Research Act, for instance, remains an ongoing area of interest to the wider network.

The recent expansion of the network to include colleagues from island settings and the Republic of Ireland reflects its growing influence and reach, as well as its more inclusive name change. As a result, this year’s international conference was the most diverse yet, welcoming attendees from as far away as Guernsey. And I can think of few better venues than Manchester College, where it was hosted. Offering integrated Further and Higher Education on one campus, the college is one of the largest in England and an exemplar of innovation in FE.

The event featured numerous speakers, including Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, a champion of FE reform at the pre-conference dinner. His proposed Manchester Baccalaureate (MBacc), which Edge has supported the development of, will be a transformative educational pathway fusing academic and technical education. And, of course, we also addressed the challenges of regionalism and the balance of power between central government and local institutions – both in FE and more broadly.

In this vein, keynote speaker Professor Philip McCann from the University of Manchester shared some startling statistics highlighting that the UK is one of the most economically divided countries in the OECD. We have one of the most centralised governance systems and, according to measures, our trust in central government ranks 34 out of 38 OECD member nations.

Furthermore, while other countries are moving towards greater equity between their centres and their regions, the UK is travelling in the opposite direction. A particularly eye-opening fact shared by Professor McCann was that the UK is currently more economically divided than East and West Germany at the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today, Germany’s federal government redistributes a similar amount annually to the HS2 budget. The idea of this happening in the UK is currently unimaginable. Unfortunately, the inaction we see results from the fact that the UK is often described in productivity terms by what occurs in London. But remove the capital from the equation and we find that the rest of the UK is poorer than Mississippi, Alabama, and Czechia. Understanding the extent of the problem was eye-opening, to say the least.

However, the event was also full of hopeful examples. One that stuck out came from Heleen Beurskens, Policy Advisor at MBO Raad, the Dutch Association of VET Colleges. She explained that the Netherlands offers significant leeway for regions to adapt vocational qualifications to local needs. Around 70% of each qualification is set nationally. However, regions can set around 30% of the agenda. This means that while learners receive the same core qualification, it is customised to their context. Logistics qualifications in Amsterdam, for instance, are typically more aviation-focused. In Rotterdam, they are tailored to seaport logistics.

In addition, Dutch employers are assessed on their apprenticeship readiness. To be considered worthy of an apprentice is a badge of pride. This is in stark contrast to the UK, where financial incentives are often considered necessary merely to encourage enough employers to take apprentices on. This was a positive reminder that different cultural approaches exist and that a narrative shift is still possible.

A second hopeful international example came from Ida Rönnblom from the Swedish Public Employment Service. She discussed the renewable and sustainable technology boom in northern Sweden’s former mining communities, where they are currently preparing for around 100,000 clean economy jobs. To ensure the required volume of labour is met, Sweden is welcoming individuals from all around the world. This progressive investment in people is not only supporting the regional clean energy sector. It is also transforming a formally rural, economically stagnant and mainly native Swedish region into a thriving, vibrant, multicultural hub. Edge often discusses the clean energy transition in our Skills Shortage Bulletins, but this is a potentially regenerative impact that we have not addressed before.

Of course, there were also plenty of examples of innovation in the UK. We have little to lose by exploring new approaches, as long as these are guided by evidence, common sense and a focus on effective lifelong learning. In short, the UK has excellent potential as a policy laboratory, and there are already pockets of excellent practice to learn from. From the aforementioned MBacc in Manchester to emerging approaches to regional development, and many individual colleges engaging with employers to develop their curriculums and workforce, there is much to be hopeful about.

Whatever the outcome of the upcoming general election, a shift in the political landscape – particularly when it comes to skills – is inevitable. The question is: How can we leverage this and encourage pockets of best practice to flourish? How can we nurture innovation? And what role might greater regional flexibility play? While the answers to these questions are up for grabs, one thing is certain: only by convening stakeholders through organisations like The College Alliance will help us find the answers.

Olly Newton is the Executive Director of the Edge Foundation. 

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The College Alliance