As the further education (FE) sector continues to battle through difficult and ever-changing conditions, our second survey of FE leaders gives us a clear picture of the most difficult current challenges and, more importantly, how we can assist with solutions.
The data, collected in April1, will help focus how we help colleges respond to changing student expectations and government priorities, and the need to demonstrate value, and to emerge as successful organisations.
Six big challenges for FE leaders
We asked leaders to rank six challenges in order of importance (see results below) and, in view of the continued funding squeeze, it is no surprise to learn that the biggest problem for FE leaders is still financial viability. Coming in at number two this year is the need to create an agile organisation that can anticipate and react to change.
Importantly, leaders feel the amount of effort needed to meet all challenges has increased since the last survey in 2016. There is little doubt then, that FE needs our support more than ever.
How can colleges deal with the challenges?
Leaders say that better use of data and technology are key factors which could help them face down problems. When asked which of several suggested elements would make their college more attractive to individuals, employers and other stakeholders, these two factors in particular have grown in significance since 2016.
Providing greater access to data, which will better inform decision making and develop skills, was this year cited by 58% of respondents as crucial compared to 45% in 2016. This year, better data access is judged to be the most important factor in making an organisation more attractive - while in 2016 it was third.
Enhancing technology as a way of meeting new government expectations is seen by 46% of respondents as a priority in 2017, compared to 33% in 2016. This is now the third most important factor for increasing attractiveness – up two places on last year.
Meanwhile, the second most important factor overall (agreed by 56% of respondents – a figure unchanged from 2016) is ensuring learners can access any learning resource, anytime on any device from anywhere.
The way forward
So, it appears that, while FE leaders acknowledge making good use of technology in both administration and teaching processes is crucial to the future success of colleges, funding constraints continue to hamper innovation.
But colleges can’t afford not to invest in technology – the advantages to staff, learners and organisations make it a no-brainer.
Spending money on embedding digital practice and digital infrastructure can only be advantageous in the long term. Not only will cutting-edge IT systems, including cloud computing and shared data centres, save time, money and physical space, there are measurable benefits to learners too.
For example, colleges can improve student wellbeing and retention rates by using learning analytics to detect those who are not engaging with study and could be at risk of dropping out. And students who are routinely exposed to technology for learning, feedback and assessment will be gaining digital skills vital in the workplace.
Colleges that embrace these technological tools will be best-placed to be competitive and attractive to the widest range of students, including adult and distance learners and apprentices.
Getting the message across
We're already working with colleges across the UK, but there are many more that could benefit from our expertise. Fortunately, we’ve made decent headway in engaging the FE sector over the past year, which is reflected in the larger number of responses to the 2017 leaders’ survey (22% of colleges) compared with 2016 (18%).
Jisc’s satisfaction level has crept up this year, too, to reach 80%, up from 79% last year. And the “very satisfied” score has risen from 23% (2016) to 35%.
In terms of opportunities, we have a little more work to do to promote the Jisc brand: 18% of respondents are not very familiar or not at all familiar with Jisc and what we do, which is broadly similar to the 2016 figure of 16%.
Improve your digital leadership skills
To help FE leaders discover how technology can help their college transform we run a digital leaders programme. The next workshops are taking place in November.
- 1 The online survey was sent to college principals and leaders in finance, teaching and learning, technology and learning resources on 24 April and was live for two weeks. Responses were received from 99 individual leaders representing 22% of colleges (89 out of 413)