Don’t Catch the Drift

Colleges must not sacrifice their Further Education (FE) work in an effort to make themselves like universities, says Dick Evans

Suddenly, politicians are talking about the dangers of academic drift and the shift from vocationalism without realising their policies are driving these trends, Do they really understand the meaning of these terms and, more importantly, the dangers that they will bring?

First, consider “academic drift”. Following the announcement that the Government wants one in three young people in higher education by the year 2000, many further education colleges felt they should play their part in realising this target. No real harm in that, especially if colleges are geographically isolated from any major provider of higher education. However, the drift must not endanger existing FE or distort what a college offers.

We have already seen the problems caused in schools which attempt to sustain small sixth forms at the expense the compulsory age group. This country has the false, and dangerous perception that more advanced work enhances an institution’s reputation.

The Government has never said exactly who will contribute to the boom in higher education. Many policies seem to indicate that it has written off adults and is concentrating on 14 to 19-year- olds who will, in 10 years time, be, the leading lights in industry and business. Current policies on grants and benefits are increasingly making it difficult for mature students to participate in either HE or FE.

The FE sector should focus on developing vocational provision which will open up access and increase participation in HE for young and mature people.

FE now has the major role to play in producing craftsmen and women and technicians. Most courses in the new FE sector must aim at the middle ground and not drift into the supposed higher league of HE provision. This country has for too long neglected the education and training of craftspeople and technicians. The indications are that Britain has enough graduates in many areas, but is still desperately short of highly qualified craftspeople and technicians to support those graduates.

Too many graduates are unemployed or under employed, many with degrees irrelevant to the world of work. The sector must also play its part in realising National Education Training Targets and in so doing improve the qualifications of the existing workforce as well as producing a flow of well-qualified people for the future.

Increasingly FE colleges are developing higher education provision at a faster rate than their FE development. There is nothing wrong with this but it must not be at the expense of their FE work.

Equally important, they must not replicate what already exists in universities or colleges of HE. Their HE must be aimed at niche markets, reflecting what local/regional employers want.

The growth of HE in the future will be for mature students, by part-time/flexible learning, and the programmes will need to be more diverse. It is sad, for example, that many colleges are developing – MBAs or degrees in business studies — they should be focusing on areas such as supervisory studies and programmes for middle managers.

If HE programmes in, say, business studies, are developed they should be in conjunction with other college departments such as design, engineering, building, and the world of work. Stockport College is a large, mixed-economy college of FE and HE, but it does develop HE provision in niche markets, working closely with employers and/or local higher education institutions.

Another dimension of the academic drift is the movement from part-time to full-time study. The Funding Council encourages institutions to enrol as many full-time students as possible. This is dangerous, especially during a recession. Although it is to be welcomed that more young people, for example, wish to participate post-16 there are risks that the institutions will move away from part-time provision.

This is because of constraints on physical and human resources and the financial incentive of the current demand-led element which pays colleges £750 per full-time student recruited beyond agreed targets.

The current funding regimes will encourage colleges to question whether they should offer expensive courses such as science, engineering technology and the built environment. Coupled with the fact that the recession means fewer recruits from industry, their unit costs will go up further. College managers faced with the prospect of crude and simplistic unit-cost league tables being published will, for all kinds of understandable reasons, move towards cheaper courses which recruit more students.

The new funding model, to be introduced from September 1994, must recognise the importance of the programmes which are expensive to deliver and often recruit fewer students.

Equally important is the need to get the funding balance right, to make recruitment of part-time students more attractive. This will surely encourage colleges to develop part-time courses especially in shortage vocational areas.

The funding environment could encourage colleges to mothball both full and part-time courses in shortage skill areas, and move into full-time courses for young people in cheaper areas. Colleges are expanding into areas such as business studies, secretarial work and tourism. A number are already threatening to mothball departments of engineering and the built environment. This process is irreversible.

Another danger associated with this drift from part-time to full-time is that many students could be taking up full-time study to delay the evil day when they have to focus on jobs. This trend is not helped by the lack of jobs and inadequate provision via Youth Training or Training for Work. Institutions supported by Government and training and enterprise councils, must encourage people to study in these shortage areas and bring about a cultural change which makes employers release their employees for off-job provision.

Employers need to be supported by financial incentives to develop a culture which enable them to continue to update the skills/knowledge of their employees. During recessions UK companies cut back on training — our main competitors invest more when times are hard.

FE is drifting towards the academic because many universities are resisting becoming more vocational. FE is trying to make itself fit with an academic atavistic vision and culture of universities. It is the universities that must change.

Dick Evans is principal of Stock-port College of Further and Higher Education.

(Interesting to see the academic drift did occur and continues today i.e. 2015 – even sixth form colleges are now in the game of offering higher education programmes!)

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