Roy O'Shaughnessy

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How Can Colleges Best Support London’s Economic Recovery by Roy O'Shaughnessy

Since the end of last year, we have seen a near total reversal of what we thought we knew about how to manage a pandemic. As France, Poland and Ireland dive back into lockdown restrictions, Britain begins to open up. We are reminded by our continental friends that many challenges still lie ahead and that as Britain emerges from lockdown, it must be careful how it manages its recovery.

In an open future, though, there is hope. There is hope that, post-Brexit, Britain may carve out a new identity for itself in international trade. There is hope that new partnerships and technology may create opportunities previously unthinkable to the students and the workforce of the country. There is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine how Britain – and London in particular – sees its role both at home and abroad. And though the ‘winners’ of the last twelve months may not yet be clear, the nation, the city and our colleges might learn from the lessons of their European neighbours.

Consider Germany, who this year celebrates her 150th birthday. Coming out of lockdown, she can boast a mere 5% cut to the economy – which will not be the country’s first economic miracle. If we hope to replicate this success, we should emulate the tying of a consistent, patient industrial plan to a relevant curriculum and a healthy balance of academic and vocational training. The challenge is one of identity: if London is willing to cede some of its bankers to Amsterdam, for example - and in other ways reshape its economy - it must have a vision of itself that includes colleges to teach the new skills that will be needed.

The key, after all, is versatility. Successful G7 economies have protected their main industries with well-regarded apprenticeship qualifications and broad skills training to keep workers competitive in a changing economic climate. Coupled with targeted investment, this has enabled steady growth. Here, colleges are naturally suited to providing the breadth of academic and vocational training required to create an adaptive and productive workforce. It is therefore important that the government can consult colleges on the building of a strong and viable industrial strategy.

The great political theorist Hannah Arendt recognised that neither the practical path of labour nor the route of professional, creative ‘work’ is alone enough for society to realise the individual brilliance that each of its students has to offer. The role of colleges, we know, is not to push learners into a choice of work or university but to help round an empowered and resilient workforce and develop the ever changing skills employees need through lifelong learning.

This is to say that colleges may best support London’s economic recovery by providing skills training in short sharp packages of learning including “microcredendials” at Level 4 and 5. This continuous skills improvement delivered by the now tried and tested online delivery, face to face or a blend of both alongside larger more significant qualifications taken over time will supercharge London’s recovery.

The basket of skills and qualifications that people gather over their lives will now genuinely represent life long learning in its purest and most compelling way. New funding flexibilities are enabling this approach and transition especially in devolved areas such as the Greater London Authority. This along with the realization that cost is the most significant barrier to lifelong learning and the progression to higher level skills, qualifications and “Helping Londoners into good work”. For some young people, thier creativity can be best expressed at university. This should be encouraged by colleges where a degree can help young people to innovate and pioneer new wealth for the country – such as through engineering, the natural sciences and medicine.

At the same time, it is only through the balance of academic knowledge and practical wisdom that learners will be able to adapt to new economic and industrial challenges, and better investment in vocational skills is therefore a must.

The post-pandemic recovery in education is heavily focused on “lost learning”, for good reason, however a deeper just as damaging problem lurks just below the surface in the undefinable regions of under developed social intelligence and interpersonal skills. Students talk of missed opportunities and losing out on the experience of College or University where many of these soft social skills are developed and honed.

We must do more to replace this lost opportunity to develop this social intelligence and can’t under estimate the power of work experience and mentoring in enabling this development at pace. This has to be a primary focus in the recovery and already identified within London’s Covid Recovery plan as part of the 9 recovery missions “A new deal for young people”

As Britain deliberates over its recovery, its colleges must now focus on training and retraining a generation of people ready to assert themselves on the economy of tomorrow, whatever form it might take. I know that our colleges can provide the answer, using our experience to help learners make the most of their own unique contribution to London’s future.

This blog is by Roy O'Shaughnessy: CEO of Capital City College Group .

This is the second in a series of blogs by Collab Group London Principals in the run-up to the London Mayoral Elections 2021

To find out more about Capital City College Group, check out their website here.

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