Should colleges be trusted to manage their own affairs? This is a question that the sector has never quite managed to shake off since incorporation almost a quarter of a century ago.
Colleges are largely autonomous, incorporated institutions, even more so since they were reclassified by the Office for National Statistics in 2012. With this comes the freedom to become insolvent – although the Technical and Further Education Act 2017 put extra protections in place to protect the interests of learners.
For government, the problem remains that there is little it can do to address poor performance. This could be a reason why the concept of the “self-improving system” from the schools sector has never taken root in FE.
Back in 2016, in the early days of the area reviews, Nick Boles, then skills minister, told colleges that they couldn’t sit quietly and “see how the chips fall and continue on roughly as we are”. Yet that is what the majority have done. For those involved in the costly process, the hundreds of thousands of pounds spent developing mergers which subsequently collapsed must be a source of intense frustration.
While the precise structure behind the early intervention, college improvement system to be led by the FE commissioner (see pages 54-55) is still being discussed, the concept is welcome. But some serious thinking needs to be done. Using the £15 million budget to prop up the weakest colleges will get us no closer to solving this 24-year-old puzzle.