Recently we saw the retirement of the chief executive of the Capital City College Group (CCCG), amid much disgruntlement and anger among staff within the group.
CCCG is the third-largest group in the sector and has a powerful reputation.
Is what is happening there a reflection of some local difficulty specific to CCCG, or is it a reflection of a systemic problem with the latest stage in the sectors metamorphosis?
Four phases of FE
Modern FE has gone through essentially four phases. The first from the period of the 1950s through to the 1970s, where colleges were designed to train technical skills to working-class youth to work for local employers.
The 1980s' rise in mass youth unemployment ushered in the second phase – the "comprehensivisation" of FE. This enabled a far more diverse and broad educational offer that chimed with the greater ambition and creativity of working-class people, who had often lost employment opportunities from local employers.
The incorporation of the sector in 1993 marked the third phase. The Conservative government of the day severed the links with the democratically accountable local authorities and introduced the market into the sector. Those who supported this move within the sector promised that the change would "raise standards" and "cut the shackles" binding colleges. Thus allowing them to be more "dynamic" and more responsive to the needs of the community.
Of course, nothing of the sort occurred. Instead, we saw colleges doing their utmost to outdo their competitors. Any attempt to foster cooperation between institutions was constantly undermined by pressures to survive and prosper as a business.
Instead of greater opportunities, this resulted in a narrowing of the educational provision and a new narrative developed, which extolled the virtues of vocational education – which wasn’t vocational education, but narrow skills training – over academic education.
We are now into the fourth phase: the supergroups. This phase is the logical conclusion of incorporation. Some who consider themselves to be on the liberal and progressive wing of the leaderships in the sector have attempted to argue that the creation of supergroups will undermine the competitive nature of the sector. Mergers to create groups would allow a new era of cooperation and, dare I say I the word, "planning" to take place across colleges.
Of course, predictably, the opposite has happened. The supergroups, rather than undermining competition, has created a more aggressive competition within the sector.
In London rather than 40 colleges fighting for funding and students we now have four main groups, with others in the offing, all with huge resources now carving up the capital and fiercely fighting to defend and deepen their booty.
Newcastle College Group – the largest group in the sector and the pioneer of the fourth phase – has now acquired, much to the despair of staff, Lewisham and Southwark College in London and have put in a bid for nearby Lambeth College.
The leaderships of the supergroups support and accept the educational direction of the government. They are angered, rightly, about the government’s refusal to fund FE but are keen to promote the values of skills training in the guise of apprenticeships.
Colleges 'more remote'
The comprehensive educational ideals that guide and inform many remain at the heart of those who teach in the sector are regarded as out of date and not credible in the brave new world of skills shortages, a low wage economy and mass youth unemployment.
This inaccurate but convenient account of events, espoused by successive governments and shared by college leaderships, allows government to blame educators for the failure of young people to find meaningful employment rather than the continued failure of their own policies. It is the responsibility of government to provide jobs. Colleges cannot conjure work out of thin air.
It is a narrative the sector must challenge if it is to move forward and be genuinely responsive to the needs of the community we are supposed to serve.
Incorporation and the new supergroups have made colleges more remote from their communities. The shrinking of the adult education provision within the sector is an example of this. It is one of the great educational scandals of our age.
A new model is needed
The conditions that lecturers teach in are the same conditions in which students learn. Ian Ashman, ex-principal of Hackney Community College, wrote about the financial benefits of mergers, saying there was a chance to improve the balance sheet on a merged college by rationalising property.
Interestingly, Ashman mentions nothing about the benefits to staff from a merger. Every proposal for merger highlights the financial rewards for the colleges involved but none seem to trickle down to those who work there.
Well, this is not quite true. A small minority are doing very well from mergers. A new gravy train is up and running across the supergroups, which rewards senior post holders with very lucrative salaries and pensions, while lecturers and support staff see their wages and conditions deteriorate.
Four senior post holders in the CCCG are paid over £700,000. The group’s turnover is £121 million. It would only cost £1 million to give a thousand lecturers a 3 per cent pay award.
We all recognise that it is the government’s underfunding and cuts to the FE budget that lie at the heart of the problem of wages in the sector. But it is not true that the supergroups cannot afford a decent pay rise for all.
Decent living wage
Supergroups signal the end of the road for the incorporation model.
A new model is needed. At the heart of the acrimony at CCCG was a difference of vision between those who accept the government’s vision of FE’s role as being there to simply train the next generation of workers through the drive for apprenticeships and skills, led by the outgoing chief executive, and those who hold to a more comprehensive vision of FE.
The new supergroups are making colleges more remote from their communities. Jeremy Corbyn’s National Education Service manifesto proposals are an excellent start which begins to readdress and reassert the progressive educational values of FE.
This model could provide the basis for an education service that is genuinely responsive to the many dimensional needs of our communities and reward those who work in the sector with a decent living wage and conditions.
Sean Vernell is vice chair of the UCU Further Education Committee