A Potent Mixture

Carefully managed ‘mixed economy’ institutions offer both potential and challenge, says Richard Evans.

First of all, what do I mean by a mixed economy college? It is an institution that is committed to an open access philosophy offering a very wide range and comprehensive provision spanning adult basic, adult education, further and higher education. Programmes of adult education set alongside A Levels, NVQ and GNVQ awards, HNCs, HNDs, degrees, postgraduate and professional awards. This provision attracts and serves local, regional and national participation.

The mixed economy college is one constituent of the FE sector. The sector is very diverse and complex with each institution possessing its own distinctive mission characterized by its markets.

The rationale for the mixed economy college is to provide a wide range of interconnected programme routes for its students. This scenario engages more effectively with life-long learning both for employers and individuals in the community at large.

As the recent FEFC enrolment statistics show, more self-sponsored students are entering education and training even at a time when more financial barriers are being put into place. If this trend is to continue it surely will indicate an interesting cultural change in the country and I would argue add strength to the mixed economy college model. These institutions can provide extensive progression opportunities where individuals can remain in their locality and yet progress their learning and qualifications commensurate with their domestic and financial circumstances. The institutions can also provide a more comprehensive provision to local employers matching their training needs. A typical mixed economy institution could provide a set of curriculum frameworks shown somewhat simplistically below. It’s the management of these frameworks, both vertically and horizontally, that is the real challenge for such colleges.

Having provided the rationale for such institutions it is only fair to say that their management brings with it a series of challenges.

A Potent Mixture

A Potent Mixture

SIZE OF INSTITUTION.

Inevitably they are large – a feature that brings with it a degree of inertia and tendencies of slow response. One reason for this is that much of the college’s resource is committed to the core business and as a result market research and development is secondary. A possible solution could be the establishment of a marketing or enterprise unit whose purpose is to bring in new business which it can deliver itself or contract to the management units within the college.

EXTERNAL CONTROLLING INFLUENCES.

One major management difficulty is the need to relate to a whole series of external sponsors, contractors and organizations e.g. FEFC, HEFC, TECs/ LECs, DFE and ED. Many of these organizations provide funding to the colleges and as a result exercise a great deal of control. This Government believes and operates a market force philosophy with many degrees of competition and voluntarism. The mixed economy institutions are more exposed to these external controlling influences, many of which operate in contradictory and paradoxical ways. I prefer to use the expression ‘managed competition’ — institutions are independent entities but are controlled at many levels within a national framework which is incoherent and inconsistent as a result of short-term strategies. The accountability systems operated by these organizations both financial and, say, for quality management are different and at times contradictory. The institutions are often confronted by conflicting requirements imposed by external contractors.

INFORMATION

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These contractors often require information requested at different times and in different ways even though the source data is often the same. This leads to a great deal of resource, both human and physical, having to be committed to these tasks. There is a desperate need for an effective College Management Information system (CIMS) which is as integrated as possible across administration and curriculum areas.

CURRICULUM

As mentioned above, the richness of provision within mixed economy colleges provides some exciting opportunities for exploiting the four major curriculum frameworks post-16, namely academic, GNVQ, NVQ and access. These are issues here of the horizontal management of these frameworks and at the heart of this are modular structures. There is also an interesting challenge in the vertical management: how best to make the provision articulate with key stage 4 of the national curriculum. This area at present is somewhat hazy following the pronouncements of the Dearing Report.

The dangers could be the re-establishment of the secondary modern and grammar school model i.e. two separate tracks, one for the academic route and the other for the vocational route. Equally challenging is the articulation with higher education provision. Here the mixed economy, college possesses distinct advantages as much HE provision already exists within the institution. In addition the colleges have pioneered the ‘2+2’ model which allows progression on to a local HEI e.g.Manchester and Salford.

In addition it would help if the judgements of quality were referenced within a unified framework for quality assurance amongst the relevant contractors i.e. FEFC, HEFC, the TECs and the awarding bodies.

LEARNING CULTURE AND ENVIRONMENT.

Equally important is that HEFEC needs to recognize the importance of FE colleges involved in HE. The HE programmes are predominantly in niche markets and largely vocational in nature. The widely used concept of the academic community has a very different meaning in a mixed economy college, say, compared with an HEE A great deal of the work is by part-time study and as a result very closely linked to the workplace and offers greater convenience to mature students whether self or employer sponsored. The programmes of study are not imitations of university provision but provide a valuable complementary provision.

Because of its nature and the wide range of the student body the management of the curriculum brings special challenges. With the mix of level (FE and HE) and modes of attendance and study great care is needed to provide an equitable service to all students. HE must not be treated preferentially over the rest of the provision — all the students are important. The quality of curriculum delivery and the learning environments must be appropriately matched for all the learners. Each learner has special requirements and this has to be managed to ensure no manifest discrimination.

This is more important as learning moves increasingly towards student centredness and the concept of the individual learning contract. The institution must attempt to create a college community which recognizes the needs of the diverse student population. Institutions must not drift academically because of their involvement in HE. The mixed economy college must be true to its values of FE and vocationalism.

PARTNERSHIPS.

It is essential that managers of mixed economy colleges maintain the distinct nature and purpose of the institution. Central to this is partnerships with schools, HEIs, world of work, other colleges and the community at large. These relationships must be based on equal partnership on a ‘win-win’ basis.

All colleges within the FE sector have this on their agenda but for mixed economy colleges the range of partnerships is more extensive and complex. It is important that large economy colleges make the other partners aware of their nature, complexity and diversity.

STAFF AND STAFF DEVELOPMENT.

The demands of the management of human resources also needs special treatment. Many staff teach over a wide range of work spanning FE and HE. They therefore need effective staff development programmes to support them in terms of curriculum management, up-to-date knowledge, professional development and transactional activity to deal successfully with partners and contractors.

One distinct advantage of the mixed economy college is the benefit that occurs from the cross-fertilization of staff teaching FE and HE — this is a two-way advantage for both types of provision. Similar arguments apply for business support staff who are equally important to the institution.

STUDENTS.

As mentioned on a number of occasions, the student body is very diverse. Because the colleges possess extensively mapped progression routes the student mix within a particular programme of study can be very heterogeneous. For example in an HND programme one can have students who have A levels, vocational awards; access awards or, through APLA, are deemed capable of benefiting from the programme of study. This requires a very comprehensive guidance and APL service within the institution.

The age range too can be very extensive and most mixed economy colleges typically have over 50 per cent of the students aged 25-plus with a large range of personal and support needs. The institution therefore has to create a total environment which recognizes the diverse nature and range of expectations of these students.

Even though with all these complexities in times of rapid change the college of the year 2000 is about the mixed economy institution.

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