Cross-sector collaboration as a route to HE diversification
'If the UK is to solve its productivity conundrum and thrive post-Brexit, we need to move on from the days of fierce competition,' says Gary Davie
Posted by Julian Owen | March 10, 2018 | Students
cross-sector-collaboration, productivity, gary-davie, higher-education-commission, higher-education-commission, one-size-doesnt-fit-all

A bit of competition is healthy, but the UK’s education sector could transform itself if more were done to build bridges and alliances between further education, higher education and private providers. The benefits would be felt across the board, with learners having access to diverse learning environments, levels and styles. They'd also have a clearer path of progression, with employers able to tap into a workforce with the full range of skills needed to drive UK productivity.  

It is clear that the traditional model of three year, full-time, residential higher education is not for all students. The current debate around tuition fees, combined with alternatives to degrees, such as apprenticeships, may result in more students questioning whether to go to university. For mature students, or those looking to return to part-time education, it is tricky to find a course at the right level offering both opportunities for progression and a route to employment.  

Although the focus of government HE policy has very much been on the creation of a competitive market between further education, private providers and higher education institutions, collaboration could be mutually-beneficial. A recent report by the Higher Education Commission, One Size Doesn’t Fit All, drew together the themes of competition and collaboration, looking at how the two do not have to be mutually-exclusive. Building from this report, facilitating a more joined-up approach between providers could be something for the new Office for Students to consider, as part of its student choice agenda. 

"Employers are crying out for a workforce with the right skills and students are looking for the best qualifications and a clear path to employment."

Quite rightly, students are demanding more from their academic experience. If this entails attending a traditional university, they want to know that the courses available are of a significantly high standard; if their chosen educational path involves vocational training, they may want reassurance that the provider has the best links with employers in their target industries. 

Whilst there is a significant portion of learners who will pick one route, there are potentially large numbers of students whose educational journeys would be most productive if they involve different learning settings and providers. Collaboration between providers will be key to their success. 

Over the years, collaboration of some form has been happening as universities, colleges and private providers work together to deliver foundation programs, or to deliver franchised or validated provision - but there is potential for much more. If this approach was taken up more broadly, the effects would be twofold. Access to courses offered by further education and private providers would increase and more learners would be developing skills necessary for the workplace. Also, if the progression to higher education were more streamlined, universities could find themselves with a significantly more extensive talent pool to draw on. 

This could be particularly beneficial for those who may not have previously considered higher education as an option, for example adult learners. A clear pathway through levels of education would allow them to get their foot in the door at a further education level and then progress smoothly as far as they were able, even up to a Masters degree or PhD standard, through a variety of learning environments. 

For this to happen, all providers will need to accept that they cannot do everything themselves, and instead work together and draw on complementary strengths. 

From an employer’s perspective, a more streamlined system could be advantageous. It is widely known that UK productivity has dropped over recent years, and businesses from numerous sectors are reporting that they don’t have access to the skills that they need.  

"The UK’s education sector could transform itself if more were done to build bridges and alliances between further education, higher education and private providers."

Currently, the marketplace is filled with jobseekers with varying levels of qualification – often, gaining the correct set of qualifications needed for certain jobs requires engaging separately with a number of different institutions. If an employer is looking for candidates across the range of qualification levels, seeking the help of a consortium of providers is certainly going to be more attractive than approaching each one separately. 

The education sector has begun to recognise this challenge and some interesting collaborative schemes have started to crop up. The ‘Access to Construction’ program, developed by members of the Collab Group and Build UK, is one which allows students to experience all aspects of the building industry before specialising, and the new engineering university in Hereford is a partnership with the University of Warwick. Both are good examples of courses which harness the expertise of multiple providers, to the benefit of all. 

If the UK is to solve its productivity conundrum and thrive post-Brexit, we need to move on from the days of fierce competition; providers operating in silos is not the answer in the long term. Employers are crying out for a workforce with the right skills and students are looking for the best qualifications and a clear path to employment. Providers all have their own individual strengths and working together will ultimately be to everyone’s benefit.

Gary Davie is a partner and head of independent providers at law firm, Shakespeare Martineau.

 

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