At the Association of Colleges (AOC) annual conference last week, I walked out of the ICC into Birmingham’s bright sunshine with a renewed sense of genuine optimism. A sense that now is our moment – that we may be emerging from the worst of times into the best of times.
All the signs over the two days of conference pointed to a period of renewal for further education and skills. Renewal that reveals the green shoots for a decade of new growth that will be shaped by innovation and change, and to measured and sustained evolution, rather than the short-term revolution we all experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly two years ago.
The ICC air was thick with the buzz of renewed connections, old and new, and with refreshed collaborations and commitments to each other, the sector and government.
Positive and proactive commitments
There were positive announcements from keynote speakers on increased programme funding and improving diversity, and colleges being at the heart of tackling climate change.
There was also, and rightly, a focus on the wellbeing of learners, staff and leaders, along with rallying cries to rise to current challenges, from qualification and assessment reform to reinvigorating learner enrichment, from sustainability and inclusion to systems leadership beyond our colleges and into our localities, regions and even nations.
We heard from the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi MP, who was actively listening and prepared to support change based on evidence and impact outcomes. He reiterated the government’s commitments to the sector, recognising it as a solution rather than a barrier to delivering on the ambitions of a skills and social revolution.
There was a welcome proactive commitment from the FE commissioner, Shelagh Legrave, on a shift in intervention, emphasising support and nurture, while maintaining the rigour of challenge and transparent accountability.
It was also an important milestone for the Black FE Leadership Group, its members and supporters including sector recruitment firms making credible commitments to tackling the lack of black leaders and governors within our colleges.
The Jisc stand was constantly humming with great conversations about how our solutions are currently transforming members’ colleges – and what more is possible. Visitors to the stand experienced immersive tech with a demonstration of a virtual classroom, exploring how video technology is evolving to enable students and staff to fully engage with one another in real time, from different locations.
Digital priorities for members
We also asked FE leaders about their digital priorities, following up on what they shared in our 2021 leadership survey. Via a Mentimeter poll, leaders told us that cyber security was a top priority, followed by technology-enhanced learning and digital strategy.
Interest around these areas was certainly reflected in the high level of engagement in the two sessions we ran at the conference. The cyber security hot topic session with the National Cyber Security Centre and panel of college leaders was well received, with a packed Q&A session and one delegate remarking that it was the highlight of their conference experience.
It is clear that senior leaders are keen to take a strategic approach to security and so we’ve also published guidance to highlight key threats affecting the sector and to help leaders determine what mitigations are in place, or should be considered.
Sector-wide interest in digital strategy led to a full house for the Jisc breakout session on progress with developing our Digital Elevation Model (an e-maturity) tool, which received positive endorsement from leaders in the room.
The tool will be launched next year and, in the meantime, building digital capability and digital experience insights (which gives insight to help prioritise investment) are now included within FE membership.
We all know that our journey through this decade will be challenging, with inevitable bumps and turns in the road. But working together with our members through co-design, Jisc must rise to the challenge. How can we, as the sector’s digital agency for lifelong learning, support our colleges to fulfil their digital, data and technology requirements and deliver on the ambitions of a whole-skills ecosystem?
From inspiring thought leadership to the effective use of and access to data, from best practice in digital pedagogy to safe, secure and reliable connectivity, from engaging and interactive content to enhancing student-facing services and experiences, we want to support all providers to excel while they respond to the UK’s skills needs and the impact of industry 4.0.
The two-day conference has made it clear that a new era of skills is upon us, and, at Jisc, we are committed to supporting the sector to be at the forefront of this change, helping the sector continue to see and use technology, for good.
Get in touch with your relationship manager to discuss how we can help with digital transformation.
And don’t forget Digifest 2022! Booking now for 8-9 March 2022, in Birmingham and online.