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It's time ministers stopped treating colleges like naughty children

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Consistency is the key to a harmonious household, according to parenting guru Jo Frost. The Supernanny presenter has long extolled the power of simple messaging, repeated frequently and applied consistently. And ensuring that both parents adopt a united approach is vital; any hint of one taking a more lenient attitude than the other leaves the family unit open to being undermined by enterprising offspring. And it is the children themselves, Frost has argued, who crave clear, straightforward rules so they know what parameters they must operate within.

In this respect, toddlers and FE providers are no different. However unpalatable new rules or policies may be, the least anyone deserves is for them to be applied consistently, and for the affected parties to be treated fairly, whether it’s by parents or ministers.

At present, FE providers must feel as though they’ve been abandoned at a family gathering and then rebuked by a mob of aunties and uncles for behaviour that doesn’t even warrant a raised eyebrow at home.

As far as skills minister Nick Boles (let’s call him, for the sake of argument, Dad) is concerned, the rules are pretty straightforward: your pocket money is being cut, and if you want any new toys you’re going to have to get creative and earn some money yourself.

For colleges, the need to get entrepreneurial and diversify their income is nothing new. One obvious way is by tapping into the potentially lucrative international student market.

And although success has been mixed until now, some institutions have reaped significant rewards. Westminster Kingsway College, for instance, has no shortage of culinary students wanting to sign up for its blue riband £12,500 international diplomas in hospitality, culinary and patisserie.

But elsewhere in the family of government, some quite different messages have emerged. Over at Ofsted, Uncle Michael is well-known to have concerns about colleges’ overseas expansion distracting them from their core mission back at home.

At the Home Office, Auntie Theresa also has her doubts. Just this summer she stressed the need for universities (and presumably also colleges) to “develop sustainable funding models that are not so dependent on international students”. As a result, the already-stringent rules on visas have been made even tougher.

Then there’s eccentric old Uncle Boris, who has argued that it would be “crazy” for UK institutions to lose top young talent to overseas rivals.

Back at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, his brother, Uncle Jo, has been sitting on the fence, desperate to avoid a fullblown family row.

Given all this tension, it’s little wonder that the number of students from outside the European Union looking to attend colleges has plummeted.

There have been high-profile cases of colleges unveiling grand plans for global expansion, when all the while their domestic provision has been falling apart.

Of course it makes sense for struggling institutions to focus their efforts on the home front. But there are plenty of excellent UK colleges offering high-quality provision that is in demand across the globe. Providing that institutions can juggle international recruitment with provision on the home front, a little bit more support for their efforts wouldn’t go amiss.

If providers are to be allowed to spread their wings, they first need to be allowed to leave the naughty step.

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