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Freedom in sight for colleges

It finally looks as if colleges will get the Government off their backs. The message from Bill Rammell, higher education minister, is simple: hit the new performance targets and we will leave you be.

He sees a time - maybe within two years - when the best-performing colleges will have the equivalent of university status. Free to negotiate deals and work out their own futures, they will no longer have ministers and their entourage of inspectors, examiners and quality assessors breathing down their necks every minute of the day.

In truth, only a minority of colleges is likely to reach such a nirvana by the Government's target date of spring 2009. That is when all colleges will be graded for the first time under performance criteria in the new Framework for Excellence, published this week. But it is clear that ministers are just as desperate to off-load the burden as colleges are to be free.

Labour ministers became masters of micromanagement over the past 10 years.

It is typical of left-of-centre governments to do this. But the bureaucracy proved too costly and time consuming and now has to be dismantled - but not until colleges prove their right to full independence.

The mechanisms are gradually being put in place. First, the lighter-touch inspections for the best are already happening, then, the handing over of self-regulation to colleges (FE Focus, March 16). Now, the final reform - a bonfire of the performance measures leaving just three areas: responsiveness, efficiency and financial control.

If colleges fail to take advantage of what is on offer, they will have only themselves to blame. And, if ever they doubted it, this time ministers really are on their side.

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