Six fundamental problems for further education

A report by Canadian academics highlights six major flaws in England's FE system

Stephen Exley

10 warning signs of problems in FE college leadership

How does further education in England compare with FE systems in other countries? That is the question that four academics from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, part of the University of Toronto, have attempted to answer.

The researchers explored the systems in five nations – Argentina, Australia, Ivory Coast, Germany and Taiwan -– and the findings are set to be released at a conference taking place this week in the latter country, organised by Education International, the global federation of education unions.

The study of England included a literature review, secondary analysis of published statistics, analysis of statistics collected by the University and College Union (UCU), interviews and a number of country visits.

So what did the researchers conclude? Given's the UCU's frequent criticism of government FE policy, the findings are, unsurprisingly, not entirely positive. Here are six key issues with FE policy that were identified.

  1. Lack of definition
    “In contrast with many other OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries, English further education is not defined clearly and stably, and neither does it align directly with international classifications of education, such as the International Standard Classification of Education,” the report states.

  2. Built on shifting sands
    FE has “multiple and changing funding sources and funders, and is subject to frequent government reviews and frequent substantial policy changes,” according to the study, which adds: “This weakness and instability in the idea or concept of further education and in further education funding and policy undermines the strength and continuity of the organisations of further education, colleges.”

  3. Funding pressures
    Not surprisingly given recent campaigning, the report argues that the “government’s big cuts in further education funding greatly weaken colleges and leave them under-resourced”. It highlights the lack of a national pay rise for college staff: “Staff have not received a pay rise for an unconscionably long time, and continued budget pressures are leading colleges to cut lecturing and support staff, leading to exploitative work intensification.”

  4. Deskilling of the profession
    “There are reports,” the report says, “that colleges are redesignating many continuing lectureships as casual teachers and assessors paid by the hour. While almost all informants believed that lecturers should be formally qualified as teachers as well as in their field, colleges’ employment practices are deskilling lecturers and teachers”.

  5. Colleges’ role weakened
    While respondents were in agreement that FE has “social as well as employment roles”, the latter are being undermined by mergers and campus closures, the report states. “Colleges' local community roles were not supported by their governing boards which represent employers and regional interests in favour of local communities,” it says, adding that skills devolution will “complicate further education functions and funding even further. This further weakens colleges as institutions.”

  6. Watered-down qualifications
    “Most further education qualifications in England are awarded by a multiplicity of private for-profit bodies,” the report states. “This is so unusual internationally as to be anomalous. It is also leading to perverse results; bodies’ competition for custom is leading them to ‘water down’ their qualifications to make them easier and more are ‘FE-friendly’ to attract custom.”

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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