The future of the colleges is back on the agenda. Three years after they were unceremoniously removed from local authority control, a feeling is emerging that they are not as secure as they expected.
Many find that, despite their best efforts, they cannot maintain reasonable relationships with schools and neighbouring colleges. After a heady dose of the market, they seek a more rational framework for longer-term planning with more scope for responding to local community needs.
These points are discussed at length in a recent paper entitled A Tertiary System by Professor Peter Scott of Leeds University and former editor of The Higher. He argues for a new tertiary sector combining the best of local authority and Further Education Funding Council strategies. Here we take this conclusion and develop practical suggestions.
No one wants to return to the days of local education authority control. Corporate status has brought many benefits with more flexibility and greater rewards for enterprise. But they find the new funding and planning (or lack of it) hard to live with. They are in an uncompromising market where the strong become rich and powerful, and the weak go to the wall.
There is no agency or public body, locally, to moderate the market. There are no politicians or officers who can strengthen the voice of the local community to argue for services which are needed locally but which do not necessarily meet the short-term test of financial viability.
Colleges have been transformed into private companies, charged with fostering their own ends rather than acting as a public service.
Many college principals and corporations were drawn into their present positions because they saw themselves as public servants. Without jettisoning lessons learnt about better organisational practice, they would like again to be part of a larger public arena at local level, one which corrects the present lack of democratic accountability.
There was a first flush of enthusiasm as the Further Education Funding Council was established and more money became available to help colleges in the first year or two. But now there is apprehension as the cracks between schools and colleges begin to appear, with open war in some areas.
Some colleges fear that schools will get the upper hand. More and more schools are asking the Department for Education and Employment for their own sixth forms and the pressure on local education authorities to support them is growing.
There is a feeling that unless LEAs are given some sense of responsibility for colleges they will be forced to side with schools with damaging, if not fatal, effect on some sixth-form and tertiary colleges.
There is also concern for the students. Some of the teaching in colleges has been very good and this remains the case. There is no evidence of any change in quality - and the new inspection arrangements for colleges are an improvement. However, the once rapidly increasing post-16 stay-on rate has stopped growing, partly because schools and colleges no longer work together.
Our solutions to these problems cover three issues - funding, planning and governance.
Funding decisions should be the responsibility of tax-raising central and local government and not shuffled off to agencies or quangos. Hence, funding of colleges should be settled at three levels:
* The Government should make decisions on the general level of resources for students. Some refinement of the current system is needed to make FE budget-setting and standard spending assessments for 16 to 19-year-olds in schools compatible;
* Regional committees of local authorities, training and enterprise councils and college nominees - accountable to the Secretary of State - should advise on local variations to national funding plans and capital spending. (These functions would become subsumed under any emerging regional government);
* Local authorities could top up college funds, as some do already, for non-vocational courses. Government grants would reflect this role.
Planning should involve the funding bodies. There is no case for national planning since there is little movement of FE students across regions. The merged body to replace the Colleges' Employers' Forum and Association for Colleges would provide a national voice to articulate the pressures from local authorities, TECs and other interest groups.
Planning must start locally, with the colleges. But regional committees, LEAs (representing schools and adult education) and TECs (for industry and commerce) must be guaranteed a strong influence on planning.
Colleges should be required to publish development plans, submit them to the regions, LEAs and TECs for consultation and act on the recommendations. There should be scope for appeal to the Secretary of State if any of the parties feel their views are not taken into account.
Colleges should have the same opportunity, with a place on LEA committees, to influence plans affecting school sixth- forms. This need not be a bureaucratic burden and it would exert powerful influence on college corporations.
College governing boards should be changed. The balance of benefits and problems suggest that they should stay corporate bodies, but changes are needed to make sure they act in the interest of their students and communities, rather than their own. Some democratic accountability must be restored to LEAs, TECs, churches, voluntary groups, staff and students on governing bodies.
It is claimed that LEA nominees in schools are less committed than parents or managers whose first loyalty is to the institution. However these externally nominated governors are often more able to stand back and take independent views if their first allegiance is to an outside body. At least a third of each college corporation should be nominees from LEAs and TECs.
The distribution of these seats would reflect the work in colleges. A largely 16-19 general education college would have more LEA than TEC governors. If programmes focus largely on local industry needs, TECs would dominate.
Again, there should be reciprocal arrangements for college representation on school governing bodies. Independent professional advice should be available to corporations. In colleges where there has been a serious breakdown of public-service standards, the corporations are often well-meaning. But they have tended to be dominated by inadequate or irresponsible senior management.
Often, corporations have no regular independent advice or access to guidance on the proper processes for conducting public bodies. Colleges should be required to appoint as their clerk an officer from an outside body, preferably the regional government office or LEA.
These proposals would not create upheaval or expensive disruption. Nor would they would be difficult or costly to implement. Indeed, there may be savings since new funding arrangements (and the transfer of inspection control to a restructured Office for Standards in Education) would mean disbanding the FEFC.
Most of the suggestions we make here would produce a package of reforms for a new government, the LEAs, the TECs and the colleges.
Margaret Maden is professor of education at Keele University. Philip Hunter is chief education officer at Staffordshire County Council