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FEfocus Editorial - FE punters' choices under market forces

Sometimes, after a long day surveying the vast and intricate world of further education, one wonders if all this commitment to student choice isn't a bit mad.

How can anyone imagine that a normal human being could reliably identify a course from among thousands, at hundreds of institutions, which will provide them with suitable employment at a time when nearly one in five young people are out of work? And then keep them in work for years?

"Portfolio careers", where pointy-headed management gurus dream of workers leaping deftly from failing industries to rising ones, are largely a fantasy. But job insecurity is real and the foresight to win the bet over which part of the economy is likely to grow is bound to be rare.

When the Government promotes choice and market solutions in education, it tends to say it does not want to "pick winners". But the unspoken result is that some poor teenager or young adult has to pick the winner himself, or suffer a re-education, which under the new FE loans system is likely to cost him pound;4,000.

Still, in the absence of Aldous Huxley-style hatcheries and conditioning centres, where we could simply grow the employees of the future, allocating them to their appropriate tasks, we'll have to make the best of it.

That is why it is disappointing that so little progress has been made on measures to put more information into the hands of students, in a clear, standardised form, so that impossible choices can be marginally more informed (page 25).

But it is probably unfair of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills' chief executive, Michael Davis, to suggest that the reason colleges are not collecting and publishing student satisfaction scores and other data for each course they run is because the results would be bad. He acknowledges that they have other pressures on them, like cuts to funding. At the moment, they are undergoing a huge reorganisation of their business to meet a new Government's priorities. Not everything can be done at once, and perhaps with his dig he hopes to stir colleges to action to prove him wrong.

But there is also evidence that student satisfaction at individual colleges is probably quite high. The Association of Colleges reports overall satisfaction among students of all ages at 90 per cent. That seems perhaps a little too high, if not quite in the election-of-Saddam-Hussein category, until you remember where FE students come from. They are either refugees from schools or escaping the twin horrors of adult life: unemployment and employment. Anything colleges have to offer is bound to seem relatively congenial.

There is, in any case, still time to provide information for students like this before more students than ever become "customers", as funding entitlements are cut back and replaced with fees and loans in 2013.

It is worth remembering that it took seven years from the introduction of university fees for the National Student Survey to be established for higher education (page 27). Now it provides a potential blueprint for a database of information about courses and outcomes that can be used by students and college marketing departments alike. Surely FE - which is already somewhat more commercially savvy than some of the ivory towers - can establish something similar in the next couple of years?

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