As the second wave of area reviews commences, facilitating a restructure of the further education (FE) sector to increase efficiency and save money, Bob Harrison, chair of governors at Northern College and a member of the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (FELTAG)*, has warned those colleges which fail to evolve and innovate will not be able to survive.
At the Bett Show 2016 he said that embracing technological advances should be hard-wired into providers’ approach to teaching and learning. “The ability to cope with area-based reviews…will all depend on digital technology.”
The Government’s productivity plan, Fixing the Foundations, has outlined the plans for more colleges to specialise in individual disciplines and some could even become “institutes of technology” as part of a new strategy to boost the UK’s productivity. But until Bob Harrison’s remark last week, little has been said about how technology can also assist colleges in light of area reviews.
Assessing the quality of institutions in a given area is essential to understanding which institutions are offering outstanding provision; where performance needs to improve or where provision needs to be rationalised or undertaken elsewhere. One of the main things that the reviews have done is highlight the need for colleges to get hold of this data very quickly and be prepared to understand and cope with real-time changes. Looking at performance is no longer a once-a-year task which is then reported back to the governing body; it’s a 24/7 operation.
One of the main challenges facing colleges is that using typical multiple legacy systems prevents everyone looking at the same information at the same time. Bespoke reporting and working in silos means staff often have different versions of information, leading to questions around the accuracy and validity of data and information.
So what can be done? With the pressures of funding cuts and looming financial deadlines to consider – the government hopes all area reviews to be complete by March 2017 – it can seem that there is no option but to bury your head in the sand and just plug on regardless. Yet with mergers and closures predicted to slash the current number of FE establishments by almost half, colleges need to know where they stand. Research shows that those who do best in the reviews have a comprehensive understanding of exactly what’s going on in their organisation, in addition to providing proactive recommendations on how to improve things.
Having all the information a college – and the Government needs – at its fingertips helps it to stay competitive and attractive in comparison to other colleges in your region and frees up time to focus on interventions to improve, whether that’s by increasing the number of applications, improving retention rates; meeting priorities in terms of local skills shortages, maximising income from funding for apprenticeships; or improving student performance and satisfaction.
One of the measures colleges can take to aid performance visibility is by introducing software that can help provide visibility across the organisation. Technology such as web-based, college-specific student data analysis software maximises a college’s existing investment in its legacy systems by being flexible enough to bring reliable data feeds from each source, provide analysis and give a holistic view of college-wide performance which is easily accessible to all. Providing colleges with accurate, real-time monitoring and reporting of key performance indicators, they deliver greater visibility of student success, achievement and recruitment across the whole organisation, therefore reducing the need for time-consuming, and often inaccurate, ad-hoc reporting.
As Benjamin Franklin is often quoted, and no doubt FE colleges tell students time and again, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” It’s fair to say UK colleges need to act now to ensure they are prepared for the forthcoming area reviews.
*FELTAG was established in January 2013 to make practical recommendations about the implementation of digital technology in FE. In February 2014, it recommended that all publicly-funded FE courses in England should have 10 per cent of their content online by the end of this academic year – and half online by 2017/18.