Higher education is backed by an effective lobbying force which defends, promotes and develops it, so why should the FE sector be any different, asks Tony Higgins
THERE is no doubt that FE is now at centre stage. It is no longer the Cinderella of our education services except, perhaps, in financial terms.
From my position, as a member of the Kennedy Committee and also as someone who was giving advice to the Dearing Committee, it was clear that there was going to be a real relationship between the two studies in matters such as local partnerships, lifelong learning, widening participation, unitisation of the curriculum and student financial support.
The Secretary of State's introduction to the Green Paper on Lifelong Learning effectively said: We have a truly superb system of higher education in Britain and we can glory in that but what we are not so good at is educating our population to NVQ level three. That's where we must now put in our effort.
His remarks about HE are borne out by recent league tables showing that British universities are the best in Europe. Similarly, everyone would surely subscribe to his remarks concerning the level of educational achievement of the British population as a whole.
So now is the time to press the claims of the FE sector, which is working so hard to widen participation at all levels, from promoting adult literacy or basic trade qualifications through preparing students for higher education to collaborating with universities in delivering high-quality HE, particularly in localities where there is no formal university provision.
Indeed, off-site collaborative provision, if properly managed and quality controlled (and in most cases in Britain it is), can be one of the most effective ways of widening participation.
But who will bring together the necessary lobbying of Government, industry and commerce for financial and other support? Who will ensure that there is the necessary development of governance and management and that academic and training skills are developed?
Who will ensure that the necessary research and marketing is carried out so that the correct markets are targeted as systems and delivery change? Who will ensure the necessary quality controls?
Some suggest the Further Education Funding Council, but this is an instrument of government. While it might work well behind the scenes to influence government, it cannot act as a lobbying organisation.
Recently, a group of experienced principals suggested that it was almost as if the FEFC regarded the money it distributes as its own rather than belonging to the colleges, and, as long as that atmosphere prevails, the funding council is not the answer.
Those with a primary interest are, of course, the colleges themselves and they have quite rightly formed themselves into an effective bargaining, lobbying and ginger group in the shape of the Association of Colleges.
But we all know about the problems the AOC has had over the past few months and it will need a completely fresh start if its views and actions are now to be respected.
And then there is the Further Education Development Agency. Surely the aims of FEDA to develop FE in its widest sense are identical with those of the colleges and their representative body, the AOC.
Now must be the time that FEDA and the AOC should merge and pool their considerable expertise so that FE speaks with one voice.
There are now vacancies for the post of chief executive at both organisations and the time is now right to discuss, as a matter of urgency, a potential merger.
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has proved to be an effective lobbying group under thought-provoking leadership for the higher education sector as a whole, working closely with the Standing Conference of Principals.
It brings together all the issues that need to be addressed to defend, promote and develop higher education in all its manifestations, including teaching, research, consultancy, finance, employment and so on.
Why should FE be any different? A single representative organisation formed from a merger of AOC and FEDA would have strength and clout and would give both organisations the fresh impetus which they need.
Tony Higgins is chief executive of the Universities and College Admissions Service and vice-chairman of the Corporation of Gloucestershire College of Arts and Technology