Whether or not colleges in England are brought back into the public sector is "irrelevant", the chief executive of the Association of Colleges has said.
Speaking in front of the House of Commons Education Select Committee, David Hughes said the status of FE institutions was merely a designation by the Office for National Statistics. "What I am interested in is getting that nurturing relationship and getting the funding right," he said.
The idea of a "nurturing" relationship between colleges and the government was introduced this summer by Dame Mary Ney in her review of college financial oversight. She said there needed to be "a shift in emphasis to promoting the strategic role of the sector and, crucially, to nurturing all institutions on an individual basis".
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The FE White Paper, due to be published by the government this autumn, is set to consider the status and role of colleges within the wider system and may look at whether they should retain their current status or be returned to the public sector, as has already happened with colleges in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Pressed by education committee chair Robert Halfon on whether the AoC supported such a move, Mr Hughes said: "I am agnostic about that. It will be an end-of-White-Paper ONS decision. If in the end [the White Paper] results in that, we have got to make sure the freedoms and flexibilities are still there."
He said college in Scotland and Northern Ireland were "thriving" with their current status. Mr Hughes also told the committee the AoC was hoping for a simplification of the funding mechanisms for FE – with the average college subject of over 30 funding streams. He admitted driving down that number could be more straightforward if colleges were public sector institutions.
Kirstie Donnelly, chief executive of City & Guilds Group, said she thought that colleges needed to be much more "owned by employers", allowing them to influence more directly what provision colleges were offering and how.
Ian Mearns MP said that since incorporation – the mechanism that moved colleges out of local authority control – there had been a "lack of local accountability" on the part of colleges. "It seems to me when you look at the governance in colleges, in particular, there is a merry-go-round of the usual suspects turning up on different boards."