When I thought about the key challenges currently facing FE college governors, the first thought in my head was: “Where should I begin?”
As a governor of an FE college that merged with another institution last July, the challenges presented by that process seemed a good starting point.
Creating a one-college culture from two is never going to be an easy task. Governors must accept that it takes time to win hearts and minds, while still driving the new organisation forward towards improved performance.
Merging college systems and processes is a necessary but time-consuming and resource-heavy challenge that can divert staff at all levels from the path of achieving core strategic objectives.
Governors in many colleges that have gone through, or are still contemplating, a merger will know (or should be warned) that it will have a strong influence on progress for at least the first year.
At governing body level, the challenge is, as always, to bring the right level of detail to the board and any committees.
This task is made more complex by a merger, which necessitates the need to report on larger and more complex college curriculums and provision across multi-sites.
I’m sure many boards are still finding their way in newly merged colleges in this regard, trying to find a balance between enough information and too much; they will need to clearly define the wood from the trees. And all this at a time when Ofsted inspectors could call at any time, as is their prerogative for newly merged colleges.
Funding, or the lack of it, remains a priority.
As was emphasised at the AoC Governance Summit (March 2018), there is:
- Limited growth in the national economy, which means
- Limited taxes, which in turn
- Limits public funding
The FE sector has felt this squeeze for some years now, and the problem shows no sign of abating.
FE colleges and their boards attempt to set strategic objectives around government strategies (such as Train to Gain (T2G) and, more recently, apprenticeships), but if employers don’t universally buy in to such strategies, the FE college that doesn’t have alternative cards up its sleeve will live to rue the day.
Diversification of income is imperative to avoid this scenario, but difficult to achieve when staff and other resources have been cut to the bone after so many years of effective funding cuts, and against a background of an ever-more competitive environment.
While dealing with mergers and finding financial solutions are important, for me the most important aspect of my governing responsibilities is to stay focussed on the needs of our students.
There are many distractions both locally and nationally that consume governor time, but the thing that we must never lose sight of, and must devote our time to most, is the quality of the student experience.
Our students may only be with us for one year, but they deserve and need the best we can give them.
Does the curriculum meet student and employer needs? Will it lead to meaningful employment or higher education? Will students want to come to college and to engage in all that it can offer? Will they both enjoy and benefit from the highest possible quality of teaching? Are we doing everything we can to make college accessible to all, though our support services and our resources?
These are questions that we have always asked ourselves at governing body level and they continue to be paramount, whatever else may be trying to steal our attention.
Future student experience
It’s no good focussing purely on present issues.
We must strategically look ahead, to what our students will want of us in the future and how we are going to deliver.
In particular, when creating and approving curriculum strategies, a board will do well to look beyond the core offer and ask questions about the part that technology could and will play in the student experience going forward.
What technology and supporting systems do our students expect of our college, both in the classroom and in social spaces? Is our college using technology that is focussed on making continuous improvements to the quality of teaching and learning, and assessment? Can learners access resources and systems from home or their workplace as well the college campus? Are we doing all we can to keep our systems and our students safe from cyber criminals? Are all teaching and support staff digitally adept?
How can Jisc help?
Jisc's guide, key technology questions college governors should ask, expands on the questions and issues I have highlighted above and is a helpful checklist for any board reviewing a curriculum and/or technology strategy.
The few challenges I mention are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg for FE governors, but has it not always been thus?
For me, the issues governors face do not detract from it being a rewarding role where I feel that, even as an individual and in a small way, I can make a contribution and make a difference.