Our local strengths hold the key to our global success

Dick Palmer, Group CEO of Transforming Education in Norfolk

Like businesses everywhere, colleges have to respond to the challenges of globalisation. Success will rest, however, as much on the strength of our local ties as on our global connectedness. We need to act as a bridge between the local and the global. And we need to continue doing one of the things that colleges do best - joining up new opportunities to individuals, employers and communities.

This is probably more true now in times of austerity and combating recession than it has been during the “good times”. Skills will make even more of a difference to companies within this fragile economic climate (it has been shown, for example, that organisations who do not train are 2 ½ times more likely to go bust than those that do train).

Increasing interconnectedness, through global trade, multinationals, technology, communications and culture, have brought about a gradual but seemingly inexorable convergence of experiences, aspirations and opportunities - see Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat: a Brief History of the 21 Century. One outcome of this is that today's graduates of the UK further and higher education system are in competition for jobs against increasing numbers of highly skilled graduates from across the globe. Seen in this light the idea of the local Further Education (FE) college, with a strong orientation towards local community and the local economy, might appear somewhat outdated.

Globalisation, however, is a two-sided coin. In the same movement through which globalisation brings the world much closer together, countervailing tendencies re-assert localness, identity and difference. The global advertising campaign by a multinational high street bank, portraying itself as "The world's local bank", captured this neatly: success in the modern world crucially depends upon understanding the nuances in national, regional, local and even micro markets. We all operate in settings that are simultaneously global and local.

A key difference we can make in this “flat world” is the talent pool of our local communities and it is here that colleges have a real and impactful role to play in ensuring that local (and regional) economic regeneration possibilities are turned into reality.

The diverse community served by City College Norwich is testimony to this coexistence of the global and the local. To the outside observer, Norwich, and the wider county of Norfolk, can feel a world away from London, never mind the global village! Nonetheless, our local economic base includes employers who are globally connected and world-leading in their accomplishments.

We have a major concentration of national and international financial services companies, such as Aviva; we have cutting-edge engineering at Lotus Cars; pioneering renewable energy technology at the Scroby Sands wind farm off the coast at Caister; and the University of East Anglia is world renowned for its climate change research. Critically, to ensure that these organisations stay in Norfolk, we need to provide them with people with world-class skills.

So, this is the key attribute that a local college can contribute to supporting UK plc - we need to work with our local, regional, national, and international employers to understand their human resource needs so that they can compete and thrive in this new global marketplace.

We have coined a phrase at City College Norwich, our notion of a "predictive curriculum"; this is all about attempting to assess what the skills needs of our economy will be in five years' time so that we can train our local community and get them ready for that future.  We cannot do that projection of skills needs without the close cooperation of our business communities and, again, we have made that engagement a critical - and strategic - part of the College's mission and endeavours.

Globalisation brings economic opportunities as well as challenges.  Major new markets are opening up in China, India and Brazil. It is predicted that the "global middle class" will swell to 1 billion people in the next 20 years. Technological changes will create new opportunities in knowledge-intensive areas such as research and development, specialist manufacturing and business services. Whole new industries will emerge as we move from a carbon-based to a low carbon economy. And the demand for increased personalisation of goods and services will continue apace.

So, is the locally based and accountable FE college any longer relevant in this new world of global opportunities?  Absolutely yes!  Developing world-class skills requires colleges to be globally aware and connected, through international partnerships and exchanges, curriculum development, and close links with internationally excellent sectors and employers.  But it is crucially also about innovation, specialisation and the ability of individuals and employers to identify and cultivate niche markets.

World-class talent does not grow out of a vacuum- it is the result of the progressive development of existing local strengths, productive local partnerships and having the basis of trust needed to experiment and innovate. Having a college that understands and supports this process is a critical success factor in making any local economy work.

Colleges have a long and proud tradition of opening up new opportunities to the individuals, employers and communities they serve. Now, more than ever, we need trusted local colleges to act as a bridge between local employers and communities and a globalised world of opportunity.  Let’s all make a difference to Friedman's “flat earth” by creating a “peak” of talented difference - for Norfolk!

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