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Slip into a subtle little number with no frills

Newspapers, local radio stations and letter boxes are full these days of last- minute bargains in the great end-of-year sale of further education courses. Saturday specials, holiday offers and deep discounts are raining down like cut-price offers to Tarmac your drive.

The reason for all this frenzy is that colleges are totting up their units and taking the last chance to put on something - anything - to hit their targets. The pressure is really on as ever-improving techniques for counting units reveal more and more about our weaknesses, particularly on retention rates. Reaching our early-year forecasts of student numbers is, here and there, turning out to be not a piece of cake, but pie in the sky.

What's interesting, however, is not the flurry of activity so much as the ingenuity of what's being offered. We have made a living out of proclaiming the student-centred experience; we have gone on ad infinitum (or nauseam, take your pick) about building the whole learning edifice on theories about the rate and style of knowledge absorption and skills acquisition. The rhetoric has been relentless.

The practice, however, has been to invent courses of suspiciously uniform length, most of them timed to run from early autumn to high summer. We have predetermined the length of the stretch to which students are sentenced, then used our imagination to define their hard labour in terms which are made to sound positively enlightened.

We have not found the means to ask potential customers what they would like, even if rising participation rates suggest that we have been getting better at persuading them to buy at least something from our limited range. Now in order to maximise the return on the investment, colleges have designed the programmes to suit the methodology, not an hour more, not a unit less. In other words we have a curriculum determined not by student need, but by funding. The core business of the system has been taken over by accountants and figure-jugglers. It is as though we have abdicated our responsibilities for education, and headed straight for the bottom line.

Does it matter? It could be argued that the discipline involved in the exercise brings with it an exhilarating, creative burst of problem-solving. Perhaps the curriculum is actually better in some respects for being invented in this cost-driven way, stripped of the frills, back to the basics. If flexibility is a good thing, and I know nobody who would admit to thinking it is not, we now have a good thing going.

Responsive we suddenly are, too, although to find that there are 150 people wishing to sign up for a micro-course in the business applications of computing when we had tentatively planned for 15 is a bit startling. Where have they come from, and how did we miss them before? The whole process of devising new, highly cost-effective programmes has enabled us to reach parts of the community which earlier efforts have not penetrated. If the process is money-driven, so be it. The benefit for the customer is no less for all that. We might claim that as education professionals we know best how to devise courses or other activities in the neighbourhood, but the fact is that in the past we have done it rather badly.

So, the curriculum will not be the same again. The lessons of the past two years, and of the past months in particular, are that a customised service does actually work, that clipping courses can make them more attractive, that repeated, year-round offerings of snacks can get more takers than one-off stomach-swelling banquets, and that the process can be more fun. The original consultation document from the Further Education Funding Council about how we should be paid was called Funding Learning. At the time that seemed a wise and enlightened title, rather than, for example, "Funding Teaching" or "Resourcing Colleges". With hindsight, it might have been given a subtitle which would illustrate its effect such as "Controlling Curriculum".

To say that colleges are resource-led does not, of course, mean that the methodology cannot be improved. Indeed the funding council is consulting again about both the overall impact and the particular emphases of the current formulae. We will all continue to follow the dangling carrot, but we might have views on how it is presented to us. There is a point at which variety becomes incoherence and responsiveness, irresponsibility. There are surely some experiences which we would not wish upon students, whatever the rewards.

When accelerated programmes become force-feeding, or when the relationship between teaching and learning, long over-dependent upon the former, moves too far towards the latter and students flounder about, bereft of guidance and encouragement, then just give up, we will blame the allocation of resources for having led us astray. So let's use the opportunity to tweak it now. If the financial incentives are wrongly calibrated or applied inappropriately we should say so.

Leave aside the issue of whether there is enough money in the system as a whole, and there are those who would say that to campaign successfully for a bigger cake would vitiate our main advantage over schools and universities: we are cheaper. Distribution of the quantum directly affects college behaviour. We need to decide whether expressing everything as units is the right way to go about it. Child care? Fee remission? Can nothing be done about the inherited costs of split sites, from which some colleges suffer grievous financial penalties and others none at all? Community-based remedial education is always relatively expensive: where are the incentives for colleges in the current funding methodology to undertake or extend this work?

The first consultation, on Funding Learning, was brilliantly managed: we almost all voted for the option which was clearly the FEFC's favourite. It may well have been the best choice. Now we have at least a chance to reconsider. Money rules, OK, but we must use our recognised associations to make sure we get the rules right this time.

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