FE and Innovation: Learning from practices overseas

17 March 2023 Daniel Sandford-Smith

It is well known that the innovation which leads to growth and productivity in the UK is unevenly spread, with many forgotten towns lagging well behind cities. If the UK is going to maximise the benefits of being a Science Superpower, then it needs to find ways of ensuring ground-breaking research is translated into business improvement, particularly for the vast numbers of SMEs which are the bedrock of the UK economy. The role of FE colleges in supporting this agenda has largely been neglected, but remains key. Alongside FE colleges’ traditional role in supplying the skills that employers demand, they could – and should – play a more central role in local business improvement and innovation. FE colleges have the potential to enable more businesses to create innovation-fuelled growth.

FE and Innovation: Learning from practices overseas

Gatsby recently provided support to the Association of Colleges (AoC) to organise learning visits to the Netherlands and to the Basque Country to explore how colleges in these countries have been driving innovation. Colleagues from Gatsby, AoC, Department for Education (DFE) and Innovate UK were accompanied by college leaders from:

  • Burton and South Derbyshire College
  • East Kent College Group
  • Chelmsford College
  • Hugh Baird College
  • York College
  • Runshaw College
  • Solihull College
  • Fareham College
  • Barnsley College
  • South Gloucestershire and Stroud College
  • Hopwood College
  • College of Northwest London
  • Loughborough College

The two countries took very different approaches:

  • Colleges in the Netherlands have set up Practorates which attempt to translate research into a language that employers and students can understand, as well as applying university research to meet challenges identified by businesses or teachers.
  • In the Basque Country, they have set up an organisation specifically to support colleges to drive regional innovation. Tknika supports colleges by making links to employers who are looking for support in carrying out applied research projects. College staff are also able to access experts at Tknika to improve their own understanding as to how industry is changing.

Although the approaches were different in the two countries, both colleges were working with employers to understand the problems they faced and then helping them to solve these challenges though a combination of applied research and innovation, as well as skills solutions. In the innovation space, colleges are helping to drive incremental innovation using knowledge transfer; technology adoption; process innovation and using college facilities for prototyping. Colleges in the two countries have more sustainable and mutually beneficial relationships with employers than is often seen in England, where colleges are sometimes selling employers whatever courses or qualifications they already deliver. The trust and understanding that comes from the working in partnership has led to improved prospects for the learners in the colleges we visited.

Another key understanding that emerged from the visits is that people are central to the innovation process. This shouldn’t be a surprise but both countries have strategies that make it possible for college staff to have the time and space to work with employers in a meaningful way. We know that many colleges in the UK are engaged in innovation, but without dedicated support for the passionate individuals delivering this valuable work, the system is fragile and unsustainable.

Currently, the sort of employer engagement that will create long term relationships between employers and the college are difficult to resource, relying on cross-subsidy from other college programmes. Additionally, policy churn creates a lack of confidence about the future which hinders long term planning which should be at the heart of employer engagement.

From a Gatsby perspective, we were delighted by the active engagement and participation of DFE and Innovate UK on the learning visits. It was evident that officials were keen to work together to find ways of enabling colleges to make a much greater contribution to their local innovation ecosystems.

It is very easy to look at practice overseas and admire it but then explain why that could never happen in the UK. But the enthusiasm of the college leaders suggests that this need not be the case. England may not end up with Practorates or Tknika but if the enthusiasm of the colleges can be supported by government, colleges could play a much more significant part in local innovation ecosystems, and that will benefit everyone.

FE and Innovation: Learning from practices overseas