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Sector that is in charge of its own destiny

Comment: Alan Thomson

Comment: Alan Thomson

Something strange and wonderful is happening in further education. People are actually spending time thinking about it.

This is noteworthy because theories are normally reserved for schools. So much so that teachers are scarcely able to breathe without triggering an avalanche of research and intellectual scrutiny.

And higher education, being in the theory business, keeps a keen eye on its own navel.

FE, by comparison, is relatively theory-lite, being more of a doer traditionally than a thinker. Until now, that is.

Professor Alison Wolf's paper (page 1) on reforming the FE system is the latest in a line of recent documents considering the bigger picture. What's more, much of the recent work on FE is serendipitous.

Professor Wolf's call for a demand-led system echoes themes covered in the Colleges 2020 book published this week by the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Association of Colleges (AoC), and trailed in last week's FE Focus. It predicts FE will become more responsive to student demand, more commercial and less dependent on public funding over the next 10 years.

Both, in turn, chime with aspects of a recent paper by lawyers Eversheds for the 157 Group, which suggested colleges adopt company structures allowing them greater commercial freedoms.

Then there was last year's manifesto from the AoC, which called for a single performance assessment system so students can make informed choices about courses that colleges, not government, decide to run.

Which brings us back neatly to the professor's demand-led system supported by a university-style quality assurance body underscoring college autonomy and for HE-style performance indicators.

The FE sector has an energy and appetite for strategic change. Some is a reaction - most of it positive and proactive - to necessity in the face of the challenges posed by funding cuts. But a considerable amount reflects a sector that is, despite the tests ahead, increasingly confident about its role in society and the economy.

Not every idea put forward by Professor Wolf, or anyone else for that matter, will find universal favour. Her HE mantle for further education may worry some who feel it fails to cover the unique aspects of colleges and the communities they serve.

But as our stories on page 3 and page 5 this week also show, FE is fast assuming responsibility for shaping its own destiny.

Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus, alan.thomson@tsleducation.com.

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