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Conference comes at a crucial time for further education



College principal Dr Julie Mills @CEOMKCollege and I are off to Birmingham tomorrow (Wednesday) for the annual Association of Colleges conference. These events are often branded as talking shops but this year in particular we hope to learn a lot (or at least receive something of a steer) about what the future holds for Further Education. 
We’re expecting to hear from both the government minister with responsibility for FE and his shadow at what is a very tricky time.
The impact of austerity measures is really hitting home now.  At Milton Keynes College we have seen a cut of about 25% in the amount available to spend on each student’s education. 
However, for some of the smaller colleges the effects are far more significant and undoubtedly some are struggling, even in the prosperous south east. 
K College was formed from the merger of two existing colleges in Kent three years ago.  Today it’s being broken up again although in what way and on what timescale is still undecided.  It’s a very sad situation and that kind of uncertainty must be extremely unsettling for the 1,100 staff and 15,000 students. 
It’s against this backdrop that we’re working very hard on looking at the efficiency and effectiveness of the all the courses we offer and indeed the whole running of the College.  It is absolutely critical that we do everything as efficiently as possible to make every penny spent counts.
Effectiveness we measure by how well our courses are taught, how successfully our students learn and how confident employers are that the skills and training we provide make our alumni fit to work.
Beyond funding there is also the on-going discussion around the future of how some of our qualifications are delivered, most notably apprenticeships. 
The Department of Education is on record as wanting to “drive up standards”, which is something we at Milton Keynes would always support and the Prime Minister himself has promised the “best apprenticeships in the world.” 
It’s interesting to note that in spite of some of the criticism which has been forthcoming our vocational education is very well respected around the globe.  Tapping into that international dimension in education is something universities have long understood and we’re playing catch up. 
However, recent collaborations involving visits to MK College from teachers (and for us, potential students) from China and Colombia have certainly given us much to think about and it’s an area we are looking at very closely for the future.
So from our point of view, this year’s conference will be less of a talking shop and more of a listening post.  We’ll pick up all the intelligence we can on the big policies but also cock an attentive ear to what other college managers are saying about what’s working for them. 
As the great Apple founder Steve Jobs said: “We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”  I prefer imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but either way we’ll be looking out for suitable innovative policies to adapt and make our very own.