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The excuse now standing...

No doubt the "Oh yes you can", "Oh no you can't" debate between the Government and colleges about their ability to increase fees for adults will be with us for years to come.

It will join the college lecturer-schoolteacher pay gap and ever-burgeoning red tape as one of those things which will keep report-writers, union leaders and the Association of Colleges, not to mention journalists, in work until we are all safely into retirement.

"But hang on," I thought, as I sat on yet another delayed train on the way into Liverpool Street, "surely getting people to part with their money isn't that difficult?"

Why, only that very morning my fellow commuters and I smiled politely in response to the request "tickets, please" to show that we had in fact paid the full fare for the luxury of travelling on a train in which there were not enough seats and on which we would be arriving somewhat later than the time advertised. Not to mention the lack of coffee due to the hot water running out.

Well, OK, I may not have been exactly smiling.

Of course, it's not quite so simple for colleges. They do not have the luxury of their own enforcers - known in commuterland as the British Transport Police - on hand to ensure their disgruntled customers are not allowed to get away without paying for their journeys. But it just goes to show that colleges really can get people to part with their money. Not only that, but they do not even have to deliver the service as advertised to students.

Surely Sir Andrew Foster, whose recent review of FE has made so much impact, could bring some expertise into the railwayisation of colleges?

As a non-executive director of National Express - one of the best-known operators of railway franchises - Sir Andrew is well-placed to help colleges to learn from the success of the private sector.

If there is one thing colleges could learn from the railways, it is the need to have a powerful public address system - to announce the latest excuses for poor service - and a team of ticket collectors - to make sure the students have paid. Imagine how much better hard-pressed adult students will feel when the gaps in education provision are announced to them through loudspeakers.

The idea is that even the most appalling service can be good enough as long as you apologise enough. It's called customer service.

May I suggest the following pre-recorded message to kick off with: "Welcome to Little Biggleton college. Please be reminded that any customers who have not paid the full fee will be subject to a surcharge.

"We regret to announce the 2.30 service in jam-making has been cancelled due to the wrong kind of funding methodology."

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