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'Bottom lines are to blame for our "bums on seats" approach'

Colleges' dire finances are the real reason why unscrupulous recruitment practices take place, Tom Starkey writes

The 'bums on seats' attitude in FE undermines the sector's central philosophy, writes Tom Starkey

Colleges' dire finances are the real reason why unscrupulous recruitment practices take place, Tom Starkey writes

“Bums on seats” is a phrase that I’ve heard a lot in college. It usually comes up in conversations between staff when they are faced with something so unworkable, so patently daft that the only possible explanation could be the single-minded pursuit of enrolment and retention – and the funding that it brings – at whatever the cost. 

Whether it is a student who has been taken on a course totally unsuited to their current skill set, or a face that started in childcare, moved on to IT, took a quick jaunt over to drama and is now back in childcare again, doing the same level course nonetheless.

It’s why learners who are highly disruptive are allowed to continue to be highly disruptive, because of a behaviour policy that has 43 steps before removal – to give them a chance, of course, so that moolah doesn’t disappear through said removal.

It’s the mantra of things done for cash instead of quality of learning. It’s used as code for, “Yes, I know this is BS but the bottom line is that we need the coin so we’re going to have to suck it up."

Undermining the central philosophy of FE

It’s one of those codified phrases that’s quite unique to the FE sector’s unenviable position, where funding and, in turn, an institution's continuing existence, is essentially reliant on footfall.

It’s also a phrase that was picked up by Paul Joyce, Ofsted’s deputy director for FE and skills, in a speech earlier this week, when commenting on the lack of integrity regarding recruitment in some corners.

Fair play to him for identifying a problem that, over the years, I’ve witnessed first-hand.

Unscrupulous recruitment practices undermine the central philosophy of further education – turning what should be a process of enrichment that leads to a better future for students into a craven pursuit of funding above all else.

Why do colleges go down this route? 

But let me unsaddle myself from my high horse for a minute and really think about this. Mr Joyce may well be bang-on with his observations, but then again, it seems there’s been a bit of air-brushing over one of the root causes of this problem.

It’s all well and good to bemoan less-than-honest enrolment procedures, but without looking at how we’ve ended up here in the first place, it seems a little disingenuous.

Why is it that colleges have even had to consider such underhand tactics? Why have some given up a little bit of their soul to pursue a path so far removed from how they should be operating?

Chronic under-funding. There you go. Answered it for you.

'Quality rather than quantity' focus?

Does this excuse all the situations described? Of course not. But when a sector is desperate to continue, it’s often the case that desperate measures are taken.

The discussion about enrolment should go hand-in-hand with the discussion about money, and I’m going to stick my hat in the ring and say that anything else is inconsequential.

With adequate funding, there wouldn’t be such a scrabble to squeeze as much out of enrolment and retention and the focus could shift back to quality rather than quantity.

So yes, there’s a problem. And it’s a problem that needs addressing. But let’s address the deep-seated reasons rather than just the behaviour itself. I’ll be here waiting with my bum on a seat for that to happen.

Tom Starkey teaches English at a college in the North of England

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