Strategic Plans — What Value?

Dick Evans argues for living with uncertainty as less stressful and more realistic

There is a quotation that goes as follows:

“You cannot predict the future, but at least you can plan for it”.

However, in the current climate of the free market and increasing deregulation, even the second statement is now highly questionable in education particularly in the FE sector. Continual changes in Government policy, many of which are contradictory, make it almost impossible for colleges to plan their futures. It is practically impossible to plan other than for a very short period because of all the uncertainties associated with this turbulent and volatile political/financial climate. Yet colleges are still required by the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) to submit strategic plans which attempt to state the college s intentions for the next three years.

The pivotal part of these strategic plans are projected student numbers, and here lies one of the great difficulties for colleges. Over the past few months colleges have seen the end of the demand led element(DLE), a key vehicle for the student growth that provided opportunities for colleges to develop outward collaborative activities. The sudden announcement of its demise has now caused all kinds of difficulties for colleges who had planned a significant growth by way of DLE. Moveover it is compounded by the proposals on teacher pension schemes and proposed changes in the funding methodologies and the regime of funding convergence. (FEFC Circulars 97/08, 97/09)

They must now fundamentally rethink the purpose and shape of their colleges and this most certainly is a major challenge for the sector itself. And yet, we are still required to submit strategic plans.
In the current climate it would seem sensible to compare strategic plans to works of fiction. If one accepts this proposition, it might be interesting to reflect on what kind of work of fiction it should be. For example, could it be reminiscent of a Mills and Boon novel? However, there is not much romance here – the heaving breasts and chests and sweating palms are more likely to be associated with staff and governors agonising over how to deal with the latest Government policy change or cuts in the college budgets. It might be more appropriate to say that the strategic plan is typical of Edgar Allan Poe, where everybody is being buried alive under immense amounts of paperwork and bureaucracy and innumerable audit visitations and reports. Or, finally, it could be Kafkaesque with a large, dark, menacing bureacracy influencing and perturbing all that colleges are trying to do.

Projections

When one looks at the whole issue of projecting student numbers over three years, the problems really do become manifest. The demise of discretionary awards and the application of benefits rules for students are increasingly deterring learners, particularly mature people, from returning to study. Even if they do return, they very often have to drop out from colleges because they cannot afford to continue their studies.

The uncertainties associated with the TEC programmes of study also make it difficult for colleges to work up effective partnerships with their local tecs. The massive cuts that have occurred in Youth Training and Training for Work are good examples. Perhaps one of the only hopes on this front is Modern Apprenticeship. It could offer some very exciting opportunities for colleges to work up effective partnerships with employers and tecs, but the funding must have a sense of stability and allow effective programmes of study to be developed, particularly in key strategic areas such as science, technology and construction.

Many colleges are very committed to helping unemployed people and the introduction of the Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) is another good example of how difficult it is to plan. This initiative is driven totally by political imperatives and has little to do with helping and supporting these people to return to study and become more qualified. Evidence would show that there has been massive reduction in recruiting to access courses aimed at attracting mature people back to study and, even when people enrol, dropout is significant because of the introduction of the Job Seekers Allowance. It might look good from a political dimension that the unemployment register shows significant decline, but the amount of frustration and anger now felt by many individuals and colleges, because of the variation and variability of practice exercised under Job Seekers Allowance, is yet another example of the impossibility of planning for a college to make a commitment to these very important people.

The continued regime of convergence also makes it difficult for colleges to continue in high cost provision, which traditionally has enrolled few students. Certainly one of the consequences of Circular 97/09 is that many colleges will pull out of high cost provision in very important areas of study. It is now being exposed to a simplistic regime of normative funding and will therefore become a very homogenous and sanitised sector of education.

Kafkaesque growth

It is interesting that many strategic plans, over the past few years, have continued to forecast growth in areas associated with engineering, construction and science,albeit at the lower levels of nvq. These growths have not, in fact, been realised. It therefore begs another question, which is perhaps where the Kafkarian model is significant: that colleges are not prepared to declare decline or closure of provision for fear of the market and the competitive edge that might give to their competitors.

Overall, strategic plans are becoming highly questionable documents and many colleges are wondering whether or not it is worth investing much time and resource in preparing them. Provided the free market continues with increasing deregulation and this is coupled with the lack of a national long-term strategic plan for education and training, then sadly they will be reminiscent of works of fiction. They might make interesting reading, but will possess very little validity and reliability.

Dick Evans is principal of Stockport College.

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