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Genuine partnership may be some time off

WATCHWORDS IN the current debate over further education reform are competition, collaboration and partnership. So, what do they mean?

Competition is where two or more groups strive for the same objective.

Collaboration is where they co-operate to achieve their goals.

Commercially, partnership implies sharing expenses, profits and losses. So, how can institutions who compete become partners?

The problem is that the kind of competition operating in FE has never been clearly defined. It is not as if students can choose between three providers each offering the same service. Rather than increase the number of courses available where colleges compete, there is often a reduction in choice as institutions seek to shore up their own market segment.

What is recommended is that the Government encourage more collaboration among education providers for 14- to 19-year-olds. But, considering the current structures of targets and funding, it is unlikely that schools, sixth forms and FE colleges could impartially sit down to plan provision.

The marketplace ensures students are seen as customers. Everything from careers advice at school to the marketing spin of the local college is easily influenced by a commercial bias. Some institutions only want to attract students with high grade currency, others have decided to specialise in converting as many potential customers as possible to their particular range of vocational products.

The drivers and levers of FE all work to create an environment where commercial values define the organisational structures. MBAs and marketing expertise continue to be sought in senior management. In this context, it is fanciful to imagine that collaboration would be characterised by anything less than corporate negotiations and hard tendering for contracts.

Colleges with the best presentations and healthiest balance sheet will remain the winners. The postcode lottery of health provision will soon characterise the quality of education students can expect.

If the Government intends to fudge this issue, it is hard to imagine how the next phase of reform will succeed. Investment in public relations will do little if colleges and schools still see students as customers. And who could expect industry and universities to support the new 14-19 diplomas if the process of course recruitment has more to do with institutional business plans than ensuring the right students make the right choices?

A transformation in political thinking is needed, where accountability is not solely dependent on competitive models.

The corporate culture of colleges would need an egalitarian revolution.

Students and lecturers would need to be encouraged to view themselves not as customers and sales assistants, but as collaborators in education.

Locally, there would need to be less business dealing and more impartial management of provision to ensure institutions worked for the mutual benefit of 14- to 19-year-olds.

With so many vested interests, we may have a long wait to find out who will promote this kind of genuine partnership.

Nigel Newton is a lecturer and researcher at New College, Swindon

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