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Opinion: taking competitive colleges to markets

Andy Westwood, associate vice-president for public affairs at the University of Manchester, professor of politics at Winchester University and a former government special adviser, looks at political expectations placed on further education

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It’s hard to find much optimism in the further education sector. The prospect of another tough spending round and area reviews aimed at creating “fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient” providers doesn’t seem like much fun. Can FE go on like this?

Many are asking what can survive, what should be prioritised and how the least damaging cuts might be made. But that doesn’t feel like the most helpful place to begin thinking about the world after November’s spending review. This, after all, is a Conservative government with a majority. It is their big reform moment: the point at which they can shape institutions in their own vision.

Only a few months ago, all three political parties were talking up vocational learning. Apprenticeships, baccalaureates, new technical institutes and national colleges were all part of the promises made in the run-up to May’s general election.

A key aim, since repeated by skills minister Nick Boles, was “greater specialisation, with concentrated expertise”. When Vince Cable was business secretary, he wanted colleges to “focus on what they are really good at, rather than trying to do everything”. Institutes of technology now promise to bring together ideas from Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives.

Some of the vision is clear: locally focused provision, with devolved responsibility and accountability; a weaker “centre”, offering less funding, with a training market and direct relationships with employers in its place; more competition and information; a more innovative and dynamic system, to be run like a business, largely for business, with those who benefit footing the bill. The state will no longer subsidise what the market doesn’t want – nor what it does.

There are expectations of colleges behaving more like schools, too. That also means more competition in a diverse system, but with the rising standards and accountability (and maybe even the funding) that goes with that.

This is the longer-term institutional vision that the spending review and area reviews will start to deliver. The old model of a supply-driven, general FE system working to external systems, standards, qualifications, targets and funding may be over. The new watchwords will be “markets”, “competition”, “local economies” and “local accountability”. Colleges will be required to have much more strategic capacity and flexibility.

For me, we must get two things right above all others. First is a high-quality, broad vocational route that sits largely within an initial education system. It needs to be flexible enough to accommodate those who come late to vocational learning. Second is developing specialist technical provision – often, though not exclusively, at higher levels. This needs to drive increases in local productivity and economic growth.

Whatever else we do, it will be easier if these are done first and done well. Others in FE will have their own opinions. Now’s the time to hear them.

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