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18 March 2021


Celebrating Colleges as a Vehicle for Progress





Author



Angela Joyce
CEO of WCG (formerly Warwickshire College Group) and QAA Board Member


In this blog, Angela Joyce, CEO of WCG (formerly Warwickshire College Group) and QAA Board Member, explores QAA’s relationship with colleges and argues that greater collaboration is key to overcoming challenges in the further education sector. 


QAA undoubtedly plays a vital role in supporting colleges and further education in the UK more broadly. As the key quality assurance mechanism for college-based higher education in the UK, QAA offers colleges a wealth of services that promote good practice, provide advice and guidance, and maintain academic standards.  


One notable example of QAA’s support for colleges is its involvement with the Access to HE Diploma. Access to HE is a gateway into higher education for those lacking qualifications, and a vehicle for upskilling or reskilling mostly mature students to facilitate progression onto a degree. The Diploma, largely run through colleges, is a creator of opportunity and a driver of social change. QAA has a direct role in regulating and developing the Diploma, with this work funded by Access Validating Agencies as well as through QAA Membership fees, to help colleges and agencies guide students in their learning journeys. 


Another example is QAA’s Quality Code with its accompanying advice and guidance themes, as these provide colleges with a useful reference point against which expectations for higher education provision can be met. QAA’s rigorous quality assessment for higher education sets a high bar that nurtures continuous improvement in the services that colleges deliver to students. Similarly, the qualification and credit frameworks, characteristic statements, and subject benchmark statements all support college higher education. 


A defining feature of QAA as an organisation is its unwavering commitment to the student experience, which is clearly embedded in all QAA activity with colleges. 


QAA’s role in the paradigm shift 


The UK Government has increasingly emphasised the importance of higher technical skills as a vehicle for economic recovery in a post-Brexit, post-pandemic world. This drive to upskill will largely fall on colleges, a small number of whom already hold degree awarding powers. The proposed changes to the way in which adult further and higher education is funded will present opportunity. QAA is in a strong position to help colleges to adjust rapidly and effectively to these changes, as it continues to drive high quality provision of college education.  


Further education vs higher education 


For many years the rhetoric in England has pitched further education and higher education against each other. Yet the two are not mutually exclusive, and the sectors overlap at various intersections. Both are needed in the interests of individuals, employers and the economy, and both play a pivotal role in society. What’s more, partnerships between universities and colleges allow for knowledge and skills transfers that can strengthen both. Colleges, for example, have ample experience in apprenticeship training and higher technical education that universities can learn from. Universities, on the other hand, have historically been the drivers of academic research activity, an area in which colleges can learn from. Stronger collaboration between sectors and an effort to anchor universities and colleges in communities should be a key objective to maximise the benefits derived from both further and higher education. 


Challenges ahead  


Over recent years, colleges have pioneered the implementation of government reforms in the further education sector. In the future, I hope that reforms put an end to the ‘more for less’ approach we have experienced over the last decade and become more supportive of colleges providing higher technical training and apprenticeships. The implementation of the ‘Skills for Jobs’ White Paper is a crucial next step for our country’s colleges.  

 

The financial pressures on colleges are widely acknowledged and are, in part, the result of years of reform and policy changes. The pandemic has added to this, stretching college resources and pushing college finances to their limits. Last year, QAA provided substantial guidance to support the higher education sector to deal with the challenges posed by COVID-19, easing the pressures on colleges during these unprecedented times. Resources like this are a lifeline for colleges. 


Now more than ever we must recognise the vital role that colleges play, not just in creating opportunities for individuals, but in strengthening the future workforce for a post-Brexit, post-pandemic world. I am proud of the achievements of my college group and look ahead to a bright future for colleges and the further education sector more broadly.