Cutting Remarks

The long-term should be taken into account before singing the praises of downsizing, writes Richard Evans.

Recent articles in the education Press indicate that 1996 is to be the year for cuts in staffing in the Further Education sector following the issuing of 188 notices.

Announcements in last year’s budget will sadly mean that schools and universities will also be making staff redundant. Following on from the previous two years, Further Education is again being subjected to totally unacceptable levels of cuts, dressed up by the Government and the funding councils as necessary and attainable efficiency gains. The FE sector is beginning to show real evidence of disintegration and the resultant irreversible damage to the quality of the service and the range of provision that it provides. We have a flawed and insensitive funding methodology, coupled with unrealistic student growth targets, set in an environment of contradictions and paradoxes as a result of Governmental policies.

Issues around the demise of discretionary awards and the continued uncertainty about the 16 hour rule are now causing the sector to struggle. No long term strategy exists for post-16 education and training and most certainly no serious consideration has yet been given to the adequacy and sufficiency of provision which matches the needs of employment and indeed the society of the future.

The drive to downsize is but one symptom of an inappropriate market culture that is being imposed on education and indeed on health and other areas of employment which are focused on a service to individuals. It is also one feature of the ‘management guru’ culture that we now live in. The cut-cut mentality is now a part of the European and North American corporate culture, with largely unsubstantiated evidence of any true and lasting benefit to organizations, or indeed to the ultimate success of a country’s wealth generation. We all accept that there was a need, initially, to improve efficiency in the areas of employment which have traditionally been overstaffed and were riddled with questionable work practices and rigid and inflexible demarcation agreements. However, the drive to downsize is now reaching ridiculous proportions. Sadly, chief executives now openly boast about how small their organizations are and, more worrying, how many people they have managed to get rid of. I find these statements difficult to reconcile, particularly with other statements that staff are the most valuable resource within any organization. Also, the fact that one of the national training targets is about investing in people is another classic contradiction. The latest example of this approach is the announcement about cuts in the prison service at a time of an increasing prison population; it surely does not make sense.

In order for colleges to cope with the current funding regimes, and all the other elements mentioned above, they too are having to downsize significantly the organization on the altar of so-called ‘efficiency and productivity gains’. When one reads the literature about downsizing strategies, one is immediately struck that clearly efficiency and productivity can be significantly increased in the short term, and that is associated with a dramatic reduction in the staffing bill.

Clearly, this is a key input factor, but little serious consideration seems to have been given to the longer term consequences of it in terms of outputs and the issue of quality of service and the range of provision that colleges can continue. The drive to ‘de-layer’ and ‘outsource’ certain services is also highly questionable in terms of maintaining a sensible profile of staff and quality of service within colleges.

Observers, who are critical of this cut-cut mentality have used such expressions as: ‘You cannot save your way to prosperity’, or more interestingly saying that this latest trend is creating ‘institutional anorexia’. In education we need to maintain a range of provision, often staffed by specialist individuals in areas which are high cost and are currently not recognized by an insensitive funding regime. Once an organization downsizes to a critical threshold it is then unable to provide a range of provision that might be deemed to be strategically important, nor easily recover and re-invest in it. If this trend continues, the FE sector will become the poorer and we will end up with a sanitized and homogenous sector which is unable to make its contribution to national training targets or to provide the stock and flow of appropriately qualified people into the world of work of the future and, indeed, into society.

Let us also hope we do not start creating a generation of managers in FE that engage in short term hacking and chopping.

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