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FEfocus Editorial - Megastore approach could sacrifice choice

In a recent column about how to rescue the US education system with a free-market approach - the kind The Wall Street Journal can, and possibly does, turn out in its sleep - Professor Donald J Boudreaux compared the disappointments of education to the utopia of efficiency that is supermarket retail. "Groceries and many other staples of daily life are distributed with extraordinary effectiveness by competitive markets responding to consumer choice. The same could be true of education," he wrote.

Media critic Tom Scocca turned the notion on its head, pointing out that temples of organic freshness such as Whole Foods Market show a marked tendency to steer clear of poor, black neighbourhoods. In his alternative scenario, "school companies would redline the ghetto and refuse to open stores there. The Department of Education would have a county-by-county online atlas to locate `education deserts', areas where schooling was effectively unavailable," he said.

We are a long way from having education deserts. But the anxiety over college mergers (page 1) does seem to reflect an understanding of the potential for the grass to grow rather more lushly in some areas than others.

It remains the case that most mergers are prompted by failure, whether a college has already hit the buffers or whether a far-sighted management team has spotted problems ahead that it does not believe its institution is equipped to handle.

But as control of college places becomes more concentrated among fewer institutions, concerns about local choice are likely to become more pressing. Behind the Government's worry about local accountability is a fear that expansionist colleges might pick and choose what provision they keep going after their takeovers. What begins as a reasonable desire to abandon failing courses could end in inadequate choices for students in some areas.

This Government's predecessor already tried to hold back the rush towards mergers, with former universities secretary John Denham making the point that bigger was not necessarily better for education. The analysis by W3 Advisory shows that in a number of cases, it may not even be better financially. And Conservatives who have had reason to decry "titan schools" elsewhere in education should not be any happier with a small number of mega-colleges boasting huge, regional catchment areas.

But if Kingston College and Carshalton College can square the circle of making sufficient savings without sacrificing local provision through this new model, then all power to them. In typical mergers, however, colleges have also had to cut duplicate courses to bring costs under control. That means provision becomes less local, or offers less choice.

Under these circumstances, the call for a clear, published strategy on how to maintain provision across the country while cutting costs seems reasonable. But it also goes against the policy aims of the Government and the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), which are to simply supply the funding for a self-correcting market.

Whisper it, but creating a provider strategy sounds dangerously close to planning - something officials have been trying to shrug off in favour of a "demand-led" chimera for years. With the SFA itself required to cut its costs by a quarter, would it have the capacity to produce and enforce such a strategy if it wanted to?

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