There was a definite buzz around the Association of Colleges (AoC) Conference this year as leaders from further education (FE) colleges, policymakers, and stakeholders gathered at the ICC in Birmingham to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the sector.

Supporting the NHS recruitment drive

As a conference sponsor and exhibitor, Gateway Qualifications received lots of positive engagement from leaders across the sector, both on our exhibition stand and at our breakout session in conjunction with NHS England, Calderdale College and Weston College exploring how FE Colleges can support the NHS recruitment drive. The innovative approaches taken by both Calderdale College and Weston College have been featured in FE Week and Lucy Hunte, National Programme Manager – Apprenticeships at NHS England, set out various ways colleges can support their local NHS trusts, from upskilling the workforce with digital skills, to providing a pipeline of health and care workers.

Optimism for the future

In his opening keynote AoC Chief Executive David Hughes felt that there were reasons to be optimistic for the future. He highlighted that FE colleges were part of the solution, that they were in control of their own destiny and that it was up to them to engage and help to shape the future. He also felt that FE colleges had the support of the general public and the communities they serve as well as having some key influential advocates, including Sir Philip Augar, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan and David Williams now president of the think tank the Resolution Foundation. He also highlighted the opportunity that colleges have to engage with prospective parliamentary candidates of all parties especially given the number of MPs that will be leaving parliament ahead of a general election.

Qualification reform

Unsurprisingly, there was quite a bit of discussion about the announcement of the Advanced British Standard (ABS) – including the need to change the name – and the ongoing impact of the current qualification reforms. Indeed qualifications were top of David Hughes’ list of challenges for colleges. He highlighted that T Levels were not recruiting in the numbers that were envisaged and described the current defunding plans as “reckless” in light of this. He confirmed the AoC remains supportive of T Levels, and he also felt the principles of the ABS were right and encouraged the audience to work with the Department for Education to get it right.

In his ministerial address, Robert Halfon MP, the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, underlined the government’s commitment to T Levels saying that they would provide the backbone of the ABS and that the T level rollout would continue. When questioned about the removal of funding from other qualifications, he said he understood there were issues but that the government was proceeding with the reforms. However, in her address, the Shadow Minister for Skills, Seema Malhotra MP, said an incoming Labour government would pause and review the proposed removal of funding.

Digital skills and the workforce of the future

The Shadow Minister also highlighted the importance of digital skills and advanced digital skills, highlighting the speed at which these skills can become obsolete and also the need to address the under-representation of those from lower socio-economic groups and ethnic minorities in accessing tech skills. This issue is explored further in Delivering Diverse Tech Talent at Scale, a white paper produced by fellow exhibitor Code Institute, highlighting the work that Westminster Adult Education Service and others are doing to address just this under-representation.

One of the key highlights of the conference was the session on the workforce of the future led by Julia Hobsbawm, author of The Nowhere Office. She highlighted three concerns for FE to address: culture wars, staff recruitment and retention, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the related skills needed. Her closing remarks emphasized three actions for colleges: regionalise, customize, and personalize; integrate with the young; and work in the future now and not how we did it in the past.

AI in FE

There were a number of dedicated sessions considering the role of AI in FE, and countless other mentions across the conference. What is clear is that AI is here to stay and everyone in the sector needs to learn how to adapt to and adopt AI.

Speakers didn’t share Elon Musk’s view that AI would replace all jobs, rather they spoke of how jobs would change and that the rise of AI will see the need for more higher-skilled jobs to support the sector.

A particularly interesting presentation was by Milton Keynes College, which highlighted their approach to AI adoption. They are already using AI for learning content, schemes of work, and lesson plans. AI is also being used to draft multiple-choice questions for users as formative knowledge checks.  The college set out four themes for AI:

  • Adaption rather than adoption
  • The need to consider how bias can get into it
  • Potential to have a profound impact on humans
  • Imagination and opportunity

This was a highly insightful talk and gave attendees a lot to think about. It is no doubt a subject that will be returned to again and again as both the technology and the use of the technology continue to evolve.

AEB challenges

The conference also touched on the challenges facing FE colleges and the Adult Education Budget (AEB). Capacity was a recurring theme, with having sufficient space to deliver adult programs on college campuses being a challenge, as well as the increased demand for nationwide ESOL. High ESOL demand has resulted in reduced capacity for other adult programmes. Consequently, some colleges have seen the return of substantial adult evening provision. Funding was another area of concern raised at the conference, with the implementation and continuation of devolving the AEB to regional control providing an additional layer of complexity into the system.

Sustaining the sustainability push

Finally, the conference also highlighted the continuing need for sustainability, green skills, biodiversity, and zero-carbon in FE colleges. Every college has sustainability as an aim in their strategic plans, and the challenge for the sector now is how to embed sustainability into the curriculum for learners. FE Colleges are implementing plans to accommodate this for both staff and learners.

Overall, the conference provided valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities facing the FE sector, and the need for collaboration and innovation to address them. The themes discussed in the conference are crucial for the future of adult education, workforce development, funding, and the use of AI in FE colleges. It is clear that the sector needs to adapt and innovate to meet the needs of learners, employers, and society.