Students are being kept in the dark about area reviews and what the resulting overhaul of the FE sector could mean for them, the National Union of Students has warned.
Shakira Martin, the NUS vice-president for FE, told TES that she was concerned about the lack of consultation with students in the run-up to the next round of area reviews, which will begin before the end of the month.
Learners could also face massive disruption to their studies during the review process if colleges “take their eye off the ball”, she added.
“There is a risk of losing sight of students with all the admin and pressure of the process,” Ms Martin said. “[The colleges] all know they will have these reviews and when they will happen, but they still have to focus on quality teaching and learning for students, and the pressure can allow teachers and colleges to take their eye off the ball.”
The government has set in motion a series of area reviews for colleges across the country which are intended to result in “fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient providers”. They will look at the post-16 provision on offer in each area, and make recommendations about structural changes to the sector.
Reviews of provision in Sheffield and Manchester get under way this month. Earlier this week, TES revealed that FE commissioner David Collins had told representatives from Sheffield colleges that further cuts to FE anticipated in November’s spending review were expected to put 200 colleges into major financial difficulties.
One governor of a college included in the reviews told TES that the institutions involved felt “steamrollered” by the speed of the process. “It is making people twitchy,” he said.
A guidance document from the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association (SFCA), seen by TES, reveals that the organisation had considered proposing a policy of “sector-wide non-compliance” with the process, but decided that this “would not be in the best interests of the majority of colleges”.
The document also criticises the area reviews’ “narrow focus on ‘professional and technical’ education that is alien to the majority of sixth-form colleges”.
Ms Martin told TES that while she had been invited to advisory meetings about the process on behalf of the NUS, students around the country were not being adequately engaged.
“The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills [Bis] should be coming to the NUS for access to the whole student body and use the NUS as an ally,” she said. “I can’t replace 4.1 million students’ views at the table and it is important for me to take the students with me on this journey. Colleges are all still enrolling students on courses. So what will happen to people on two-year courses? Are they aware of what could happen?”
Student organisations were not being kept informed about the implications of the area reviews, Ms Martin added. “I am not happy with how student presidents and other representatives are not being told what is going on. That is about integrity.”
But she made it clear that the NUS did not oppose “sustainable” mergers if they protected provision. “If merging is the best thing for students in the long run, I am for it,” Ms Martin said.
SFCA deputy chief executive James Kewin described the area reviews as “rushed and ill-conceived”, and said the association was encouraging members to “feel confident to challenge them”.
“We will not stand by and watch sixth-form colleges be bullied into mergers with other colleges while the expansion of school, academy and free school sixth forms continues apace,” he said.
Yes, we can?
But Sue Pember, director of policy and external relations at adult and community learning body Holex, said the reviews could bring positive opportunities for the sector.
“I think people are concerned about the timing and the uncertainty,” she said. “But I am on the side of: ‘We can do this.’ ”
Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said its members’ “absolute focus” would be on “providing high-quality education and training for their students” throughout the process.
“In the area reviews, colleges will be looking to ensure that students continue to benefit from the best possible education and training in the short, medium and long term,” he added.
A spokesman for Bis said learners were “at the core of the area-review process”.
“The review process will improve the learner experience by creating strong and resilient institutions that will provide education and training that gives them the skills that are most valued by employers,” he added.