FE: Further Thoughts.

Colleges’ priorities are not what they used to be. Richard Evans finds his unhappy predictions for the sector have come true.

I have previously written about some of my views and concerns about the future of the FE sector. It gives me little satisfaction that many of the potential problems and concerns identified are now all too evident.

One issue that merits investigation is the analysis of the cost of all the increased marketing, publicity and incentives that have been introduced since incorporation and the number of new students from previously nonparticipating groups that have been recruited into the sector. Such a cost/ benefit analysis should certainly include attendance, retention and achievement by students. If institutional needs override those of the learners, then students will embark on inappropriate provision not matched to their ability or aspirations and will in all probability leave, or not achieve. Expenditure must be a sensible proportion of the college’s total budget, and most of the spend should be about attracting new students, and not about diverting prospective students from one institution to another.

If this country is to improve its education /training system and make a major contribution to national targets, it must attract new students, both young and mature, and offer them high-quality, relevant provision. It must play its part in developing a learning society and realize the aspiration of life-long learning for all its citizens. There is still no long-term strategy for post-16 education at local, regional or national level. To date, little direction has been given by the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC).

Many colleges are now struggling to survive financially as well as having to cope with the immense increase in bureaucracy. Accountants and auditors seem now to have become a permanent feature in colleges’ lives. I fully accept the need for accountability, but it seems that the present arrangements have reached ridiculous and questionable proportions. Colleges have to spend a disproportionate amount of time and money responding to requests for information, which has inevitably led to a deflection of resources away from their primary aim of providing a quality service to learners and the necessary support to their staff.

The hidden costs following incorporation have now become evident. Expenditure is now required on insurance premiums, security, the new employment legislation and estates. The inherited differences and inequalities that colleges experienced at incorporation were never actually recognized. Colleges now await the true costs of the auditing arrangements.

Inequality of treatment.

The introduction of the harsh. insentitive and time-compressed regime of funding convergence is causing many institutions real difficulties. It takes time to introduce a more equitable approach to funding.

The sector still has a number of disparate organizations which attempt to represent their views. Evidence is now emerging that some are proposing to merge, but I would argue that such discussions could be too late. The damage caused by the fiasco over Further Education (FE) colleges’ contracts of employment is an example of the inequality of treatment that the sector has experienced. After all, the sixth form colleges escaped this debacle and now the FE colleges will have to deal with its resonances for many years to come.

The obsession with targets,league tables and performance indicators is another example of the market approach that we are now exposed to. Their use is limited and, after all, they are but tokens, and shallow ones at that, of what is really happening or what is likely to happen. There needs to be greater internal differentiation of such information.

Similar arguments surround other simplistic statistical data in such areas as ethnic monitoring and crime rates. The difference in reporting GCE, GCSE and vocational award results is a good example. This information and the resulting league tables make no attempt to articulate the differences in the processes associated with registration and assessment that operate.

The annual silly season around GCE and GCSE results starkly highlights the problems. The Press only adds to the frustration that many in education and training feel about the reporting of results. Their short-term obsession with the results causes massive concern in the minds of students and their parents/ partners. No wonder the Samaritans have to introduce a campaign to help students at this time. The Press must provide a more sensible and reasoned analysis of the results. I know it is often said that good news does not sell newspapers, but in this area I think they have a responsibility to adopt a more sympathetic position.

The funding regime that is being introduced is still largely untried and is insensitive to the differences in the range of provision and the costs associated with its delivery. Colleges are now being forced to cut back or withdraw from certain areas of strategic provision such as engineering, construction and science. Many colleges with long traditions of making part-time provision for employers are now reviewing their position. These areas are more expensive to deliver, in both physical and human resources. Colleges cannot sustain, let alone develop, new methods of learning for strategic programmes of study thanks to the inadequacy in the levels of funding and the added costs of support.

Rationalization.

We are told it is all about ‘rationalization’. Interesting. Universities are having to deal with ‘consolidation’ in regard to full-time students. Interesting words that end in ‘ation’ – I can think of a few: termination, extermination, etc.

Unless these and other concerns are addressed, Further Education (FE) cannot fully realize its potential. Our students are a significant proportion of the population, and their education and training are a vital investment for the country’s future economic health. This will only be possible if a number of these contradictions and paradoxes and the sense of inequality of treatment are removed or reduced.

There are many issues about the ethics and morality of the way colleges operate, and they must not be driven by the market. It is manifestly inappropriate. There should be, once and for all, a careful and sympathetic review of these issues. In addition the sector needs to become more united in its purpose.

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