Sink or swim

Dick Evans fears that FE could become a lost continent drowned by competition.

One of the inevitable consequences of subjecting education and training to an open and free market is to create a competitive climate, which becomes counter productive. If the market approach is operated in an extreme form, as it is sadly now, with uncontrolled deregulation, the resultant cut-throat competition between the institutions and sectors will fail to rectify many of the problems confronting education and training in this country. Couple this with the absence of any long-term strategic framework for education and training, and the consequences are indeed dire.

That is not to say that carefully managed competition, which encourages collaboration, is not acceptable, in that that can bring sensible gains in efficiency and effectiveness.

The exercise of the free market, without the necessary controls and steers on the stock and flow of qualified people and without due regard to the issues of adequacy and sufficiency of provision is surely a recipe for disaster. Institutional budgets are now being deflected into expensive marketing strategies as well as responding to all the costly bureaucracy associated with accounting for student growth. These deflections of valuable resources will in turn stifle innovation and enterprise, the very factors that are so important to the free marketeers. I would argue strongly that, even within a managed, collaborative climate, we can still encourage innovation and enterprise.

Over the past three years, all the educational sectors have been subjected to a continuing and unacceptable level of required efficiency gains. The call to do ‘more for less’ has meant a heightened drive to compete with other providers. There is now a real danger that the needs of the learner will be subverted because of institutional priorities, imperatives and a wish to survive. The ethics of recruitment could begin to take a back seat as institutions attempt to realize their student growths, and a great deal of the marketing and publicity will just divert students from one institution to another and fail to attract new learners back into learning. Also, key high cost strategic provision such as science, engineering and construction will be discontinued – this will present major problems in such areas as plumbing and the construction industries in the future – just wait and see!

As institutional budgets are further squeezed, coupled with reduced student financial support, retention and achievement rates will begin to fall back, and the national student growth targets will not be realized. One worrying consequence of this is the possibility of ‘sector drift’ where one educational sector moves into the market of the other.

It is accepted that there has always been overlap: many Further Education (FE) colleges deliver higher education programmes which are very much complementary to that offered by the universities and are in niche markets and related very closely to the workplace. Sixth forms in schools, and colleges of FE have offered AS and A levels for many years and, increasingly, GNVQ awards. This has always been a good example of providing choice, but there is now real danger that the movement could bring about a number of unacceptable consequences to each sector. Many have argued that the educational sectors and the constituent institutions should offer provision that forms a ‘seamless robe’ for all learners of the future. If this shift becomes more significant, then it does beg a whole series of fundamental questions about the shape, nature and purpose of schools, FE and universities. One could liken this concern to continental dritt, albeit on a much accelerated scale (see diagram). The FE sector is particularly vulnerable, as it finds itself sandwiched between the schools and HE.

The schools have a particular problem as the 16-19 age cohort is now fairly static over the next decade or so. They could develop extended provision within the academic and general vocational areas which would compete directly with that offered by the colleges. They could also develop extensive provision for mature students. In many ways this is not a bad thing, as it does introduce a slight competitive edge, but it is important to remember that the FE sector has been set growth targets and any greater degree of deregulation could raise questions on whether those growth targets are realizable.

A possibly more serious challenge is from the university sector. Following the budgetary announcements last year, the universities now are confronted with significantly reducing budgets and tight controls on student numbers. There is already evidence that some universities are beginning to move more significantly across the FE/HE interface and are developing provision which is in direct competition to that of the colleges. There is also evidence of ‘poaching’ where they are offering places to students on degree courses with minimal A-Level grades. The FE sector, over many years, has developed provision at higher education level by way of, for example, ‘2+2s’, where students can enter an FIND programme, and if they so wish after completing that valuable award, continue on to do a degree programme with the first or second year exemptions, either within the FE college or with a neighbouring HEI. More seriously, there could be the development of non-prescribed FE, ie. Higher National Certicates (HNCs), professional awards, in which again FE has a very credible and long track record.

Figure 01

Figure 01

I fully accept choice and for institutions to develop their provision, but again would argue that the issues of adequacy and sufficiency of provision are important, as well as a long term strategy for education and training for this country. If we are serious about developing life-long learning, then there have to be certain controls placed across the sectors and the provision that they are expected to deliver. Unless serious consideration is given to these matters, I fear that FE could become the ‘Atlantis’: a territory that some people thought existed but did not know where or its nature, or that some people never accepted existed. For a few of us who are committed to the sector, it is a very special range of education.

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