In Further and Higher Education there are major concerns about recruitment, retention, achievement and ultimate destination of students studying engineering and technology.
Colleges and universities continue to experience difficulties in realising their student target numbers and there are concerns about the quality of the students being accepted onto the programmes of study at all levels within the two sectors.
Skills/competence/knowledge/understanding gaps are now manifest across the spectrum of employment, whether it be at craft, technician or professional level. One major difficulty the FE colleges experience is obtaining valid, reliable and up-to-date statistical information about the students studying engineering across the sector. In spite of the number of valiant efforts by a number of us, it still has proved nigh on impossible to get a reliable evidential base in order for the sector and its constituent colleges working in partnership with the professional bodies to begin to carry out a comprehensive and systemic review of the problems and hopefully bring about a number of solutions.
So why is the Further Education sector in such difficulties? Many of the issues have been aired over a long period of time. The starting point is the cultural hostility to vocationalism, particularly in engineering. There has always been a perception that careers in engineering are insecure and lowly paid. The widespread redundancies over the past two decades have reinforced these perceptions. Whether they are real or imagined they really do act as a deterrent for people wishing to enter education and training for engineering and hence progress onto higher education and employment.
The funding methodology in Further Education is driven primarily by student numbers and hence colleges have had to protect and subsidise their engineering provision. Low student numbers coupled with the high cost of delivery has never been recognised by the funding methodology. Even with tariff weightings the additional funding has never reflected the true cost of delivering engineering provision. A number of colleges have closed their engineering departments and facilities or merged them with other discipline areas or downsized their resources in these areas. It looks as if universities are now going to follow that trend.
The Further Education sector has gone through a fairly difficult period since its constituent colleges were made independent in 1993-Thousands of lecturers have been made redundant, particularly in the areas of high cost vocational provision such as engineering, vocational science and construction. A great deal of very valuable resource, both human and physical, has been lost to the sector in these areas. Decline in student numbers has been witnessed across the various levels of provision. Typical declines in Higher National Certiflcates/Diplomas is around 40% and similar declines have been witnessed at craft and technician level. Evidence would show that there has been some growth at the Foundation and Intermediate level of provision but this has not led to an increased demand for the higher level courses. It is absolutely essential that we do obtain reliable and up-to-date statistics in order to analyse the trends across this level of the spectrum. Students embarking on Foundation and Intermediate courses should progress onto Advanced and higher levels. At this stage there is no evidence that this is happening.
In order for colleges to respond to the need to increase the flow of qualified people into the profession they need to be resourced properly. This has to be coupled with a campaign to encourage more people, particularly women, to enter the professions. It is not a short term programme. The FE sector and its constituent colleges who are committed to this provision will remain committed to these strategically important subjects and have a track record of working in partnership with employers, professional organisations, schools, universities and private providers. If a long term strategic framework can be developed then we might, in this country, begin to tackle these longstanding difficulties. FE is ready to play its part.
by Dick Evans BSc Hons MEd PhD PGCE FlnstP. Principal of Stockport College of Further & Higher Education