When I walked up to the Kensington Olympia yesterday, just before 9, I was staggered to see queues of people waiting to be let in to the venue. Was I in the wrong place? This is the wrong month for Wimbledon. It was a showcase for higher education and further education with trade stands and guest speakers. I was told by one of the organisers that over four and half thousand people had booked to attend. How times are changing.
My session was at 9.40 and by the time I had finished speaking, the main auditorium which seats over 300 was packed with standing room only, and I am told there were others waiting outside to be let in by the ushers. I flatter myself to think that they had all come to hear me speak, but the reality was that I was just the warm up act for Ian Diamond.
Ian is an engaging speaker and puts the case for a high-performing higher education sector persuasively. I like to think that he and I act as a good double act. Ian unapologetically sets out the evidence for a highly efficient and effective sector, and why there should be more investment. I establish what has been achieved so far in evidencing efficiencies to Government, and how we will build on this in the future.
The only difference between us is that I always say that we will go wherever the evidence takes us. Undoubtedly we will find areas in the sector which bear comparison with anything else in the world but, if we find others which can be improved, we should also highlight these, and put strategies in place to address them. I don’t think Ian disagrees with this point.
The highlight of the session, for me, was listening to Martin Doel from the Association of Colleges, who set out how the performance of the further education sector in delivering apprenticeships should be the envy of the world.
He also provided some interesting thoughts on vocational training. He said the word ‘vocational’ should be imbued with positive connotations, and it is when applied to caring professions such as medicine. But more often nowadays the word carries negative associations, which are unwarranted. So he was saying that this word needs to be given a rest in the further education sector, and replaced with something like ‘technical and professional’ in order for the type of education, training and skills development the sector provides to be recognised appropriately. A chance for a bit of reflection about a sector I don’t often think about in this way.
When I left the main auditorium, the rest of the show was bursting at the seams. There were many other seminars going on at the same time and Ed Hughes form HEFCE was due to speak later in the day. I hope he made it through the crowds.