Mick Fletcher of the Policy Consortium investigates the underlying messages behind one of the more unexpected proposals within the current BIS consultation about extending the scope of FE Loans.
In the rush to get away at the end of term, FE people may have missed two very important contributions to the debate around localism and the decentralisation of power. In mid-June, the IPPR published its ‘Condition of Britain’ report arguing (inter alia) that ‘social reforms embodied in shared institutions are more durable that those which rely on transactions’. Subsequently, Matthew Taylor took the argument further in a review of the IPPR report on his RSA blog; in essence, he claims that positive change in the future is less likely to come from choosing the ‘right’ policies within Whitehall than from building the right institutions – ones that allow and encourage engaged citizens and communities to shape their own futures. These ideas clearly resonate with demands in the FE sector for greater college autonomy, combined with genuine local accountability.
Although there is a lot of rhetorical support for localism, putting it into practice will be difficult. Labour politicians will admit in private that their Train to Gain programme, though well-intentioned, resulted in considerable waste. They will note more openly that the recent growth in apprenticeship numbers under the coalition has similarly involved huge ‘deadweight’ costs and lots of poor-quality practice. The danger is that their answer may well be to seek further controls in a futile attempt to ‘guarantee’ quality, by giving more power over colleges to LEPs, SSCs or yet another body purporting to speak for employers.
Strong support for Taylor’s argument can however be found from an unexpected quarter. The BIS consultation on extending FE loans included a surprise proposal to transfer HNDs and HNCs from higher education to further education. The reason is that in the lightly-regulated HE system, the doctrinaire decision to remove the cap on numbers for private providers has resulted in an explosion of dubious activity and a hole in the HE budget. Private colleges have collected fees, their students have collected maintenance support and neither party seems too bothered about drop-out rates that are sky-high.
Although not perfect, the FE sector has a longer history of trying to police dubious practice; so such a transfer makes short-term tactical sense. Colleges and training providers have long been subject to a degree of regulation that doesn’t obtain in HE and would be strongly resisted by universities. There is a better answer, however.
The current problems in HE (and earlier, similar, ones in FE) derive from government seeing itself as ‘commissioning’ education and training outcomes in an open market. Instead of looking to build strong and stable educational institutions which share a vision of building a better society through education and training, Whitehall has sought a market place — where a mix of providers, some only engaged for short-term financial gain, compete to ‘deliver’ what the centre thinks it has designed. It is not clear how many times this model has to fail for politicians to get the message that it doesn’t work.
It is instructive that it was not public universities that broke the HE bank. In the FE sector, too, it is free-wheeling private provision that is responsible for the worst excesses. Although there are of course many private providers with integrity, they and FE colleges are undermined by the cowboys. All are burdened by the top-heavy regulation required to police the worst.
What is needed is to build on the idea of chartered colleges, in order to create a set of institutions that will be self-regulating and can avoid waste and scandal through internal, not external, controls. Colleges should be seen as a vital part of civic society, linked in many and varied ways with their communities and driven by educational values and mission, not by business imperatives. Colleges (and private providers that meet the same standards) should be assured of long-term grant funding and the freedom to negotiate its use locally to meet community priorities.
The alternative is yet more central regulation — and then, yet more disappointed politicians who will wonder once again why their ambitions were subverted.The Policy Consortium on Twitter