It was party time again in Birmingham. The annual Further Education Funding Council knees-up took place earlier this month, and everybody was there. It is the sort of invitation which is hard to refuse, since it is so exclusive: principals only (or chief executives as more and more style themselves these days), and no Celts. The Welsh and the Scots are notorious poopers, always going on about how much better they do things than we wretched English do.
What is so depressing is that they are usually right. Add to the heads of English colleges a careful selection of the great and the good from the periphery and you have the makings of what in Lancashire is called "a reet good do".
And so it proved. Whingeing was out, complaints banned. We were required to be jolly. There was much to be jolly about: the sector is still growing, for the second consecutive year since measurement began. We are growing faster than the national economy whose interests we are exhorted to serve. Unlike the rest of the economy, we are not suffering from skill-shortages, in fact many colleges will be laying skilled workers off as they undertake head-count downsizing.
We can do this because we are achieving impressive efficiency gains, with another 5 per cent planned for 1995-96. To get there in any sort of comfort means growing again, so as to take full advantage of the funding methodology.
We all, or very nearly all, voted for the system of tariffs and weightings, so we can hardly complain when its effects turn out to be regressive. In those heady days before incorporation, growth looked a lot easier to get than it has turned out. After all, we could scoop up lots of students from schools with sixth forms - our superior marketing, to say nothing of our superior curriculum, would enrich colleges and beggar schools.
So be it, that is the free market. Winners and losers. Some of those at Birmingham ventured to say that the spoilsport schools were not playing the game properly. Not only were they pretty good at marketing their own sixth forms, but they had the effrontery to move into our territory and offer GNVQs, which, shock horror, were taking students from colleges! Something clearly should be done to stop them.
This kind of gloomy talk was not in the party spirit, and the whingers were firmly told to put their paper hat back on, pull another cracker, and listen to another story of how well we are all doing. People lined up to be nice to us: the minister, two charming individuals from the National Audit Office, the chairman of the funding council. We could do better, much better, on equal opportunities, but lots of help was offered to us. So we staggered away from the conference, our backs red and raw from all those congratulatory pats, a barmy army fired up with reported achievement.
Back home at the desk, it didn't seem quite like that, and some of the old questions returned from the back of the mind and out from the corner of the eye. What, exactly, is the relationship between the Government, the funding council, and the colleges? Are we all on the same side and, if so, who is the enemy? The essential job of the council from the perspective of the Government must be to secure value for public money by purchasing adequate and sufficient further education from the colleges. It is an organisation with impeccable credentials in transparency and accountability, and it, quite rightly, demands similarly irreproachable behaviour from its clients, the colleges.
But the whole point of a quango, which is what the FEFC is, is that it is non-governmental, not an arm of the state. Does or can the FEFC speak up for colleges in argument with the Government? Clearly it does, and the successive public expenditure settlements as one example, and revision of the notorious 21 rule as another demonstrate that fact.
The council was able to show, in each case, that its brief to secure adequacy and sufficiency was being compromised by inadequate resources and insufficient flexibility respectively. Both achievements were given full recognition by those who went to Birmingham. But can, or should, the council seek to intervene in the market mechanism? If, as widely predicted, colleges go bust not because of mismanagement but because of the remorseless pressure of the funding methodology, will there be heavy hearts andor red faces in Coventry?
Is the council neutral in these matters? The good times, after all, are nearly over. Increased funding, conditional always on growth, is available only for two more years. For some of us it's as though no sooner have we begun to understand the rules of the party games than the booze begins to run out.
The council has proved to be addicted to consultation, both through its specialist, invited committees - and, incidentally, a warm welcome to Helena Kennedy's investigation into widening access to colleges - and through less formal ways of checking out its proposals. That is not the same thing, however, as steady scrutiny from the colleges. Schemes, models and methodologies are strengthened and endorsed by intelligent challenge. We all know more now about planning, managing and caring for colleges, and we might well give different answers to some fundamental questions. As the chairman made clear in his final remarks at Birmingham, the sector's voice must continue to be heard.
Referring doubtless to the Association for Colleges, he welcomed the sector's contribution to the debate on issues from student financial support, through competition, to careers advice. He pointed out that the sector is still misunderstood, that our role in commenting on the curriculum and its delivery, on pedagogical matters and on government policies is a vital one. Couple all that with a healthy debate on some of the council's own assumptions, and you have an agenda which should engage us all.
Edited by Ian Nash