Is expert leadership harming FE?

FE's experts are too introspective – to secure the future of colleges, we must see the bigger picture, says Stefan Drew

Stefan Drew

The experts leading FE are burying their heads in the sand - refusing to see the bigger picture, writes Stefan Drew

In early February, days after the college insolvency regime came into being, a well-respected FE leader told me that the likelihood of any college entering into administration was close to zero.

A few days ago the High Court placed Hadlow College into administration.

Hadlow is just one of the many examples where FE, and its political masters, have made predictions that have gone wrong.

So I have to ask: do FE experts know what they are doing?

Read more: Hadlow leaders 'put sustainability of two colleges at risk', says FE commissioner

Background: Hadlow College placed into education administration

Read more: Five colleges to bid for Hadlow College provision

Too many experts with narrow vision

I’m not referring just to principals, senior teams, chairs and governors. The question needs to be asked of all those bodies that had overview of this and other providers. As David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, pointed out in a recent article, colleges are subject to oversight by the Department for Education, the Education and Skills Funding Agency, Ofsted, the FE commissioner, the Office for Students, mayoral authorities, the EU, internal and external auditors, awarding organisations, banks, pension funds, the Home Office, etc.

And I’m not convinced by arguments that the Hadlow case is exceptional in that people took unexpected actions. In The Black Swan, published in 2007, Nassim Nicholas Taleb made clear that the unexpected is common. And auditors are paid to look for fraud.

Perhaps the problem is that there are too many experts with narrow vision. The good news is that this type of problem isn’t limited to FE, and can be overcome.

'The peculiar blindness of experts'*

The thing is, experts are only expert in their own field and the world doesn’t operate in their silos. Experts are often blind to everything outside their area of expertise and their vested interests. It’s not that they are evil – they are just human.

Lessons from history

In his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich asserted that global famine, due to overpopulation, was inevitable within a decade. In one possible scenario, he predicted nuclear war in the fight for food and water. Over 50 years later, we are still here. Global famine and nuclear catastrophe have been averted by improved agriculture and a rapid decrease in birth rate.

Philip E Tetlock has tested expert predictions. After research that lasted 20 years, involving 284 experts and their 82,361 probability estimates, the short- and long-term results, published in 2005, were incredibly inaccurate. Experts predicted that many things were either impossible or near-impossible – but they were proved wrong 15 per cent of the time. In many cases, the experts produced worse results than pure chance.

In his previous work, Tetlock had noticed how, despite the fact that experts contradicted one another, they were impervious to counterarguments and refused to countenance other viewpoints.

One group of people produced better results than the experts. They weren’t experts and worked as a group in making predictions and listening to counterarguments, and were willing to amend their views. By building on the initial volatility of views, they reached a more accurate consensus.  

Do colleges have a future?

FE needs an independent external perspective. The various government bodies have a vested interest in stasis. Colleges struggle to see a future where colleges do not exist. Rather than consider other options, they are introspective. The college “ostrich attitude” is exemplified by cries of underfunding and the fact we should #LoveOurColleges. Underfunding only exists if we keep trying to do the same thing over and over with less and less money. There is another way.

Perhaps the best example I see of the ostrich mentality is the Commission on the College of the Future. It’s not that the members aren’t honourable people doing the best they can. But the name indicates that they have already decided colleges have a future. After spending most of my life in FE, I hope they are right. But surely the question to ask is, "What is the future of education and is there a role for colleges?"

By taking such a niche view, I believe they are limiting the chances of colleges having a future. Only by looking at all eventualities can FE shape itself to the needs of society. Imposing ostrich views will hasten college decline.

Are colleges expert enough?

A well-respected education membership body recently exhorted us to visit its new website. As it promotes digital and technology courses, I expected great things.

What I found was amateurish. Not only were over 15 per cent of member colleges’ names misspelt, the site breached GDPR and several other legal requirements. Several approaches notifying about the above were ignored, so I wrote to the CEO’s PA. The names are now spelt correctly but the site still breaches several legal requirements.

Is this yet another example of unexpected actions?  These “experts” are still getting it wrong but refuse to countenance that possibility or legal action. Another Tetlock Scenario?

Stefan Drew is a former head of marketing at two FE colleges and marketing consultant. He tweets at @StefanDrewe

*First coined by David Epstein

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