Another View - Is it the business of colleges to adopt a corporate culture?

12th March 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Stephen Jones

"We called for hands. They sent us people." The words are those of Willy Brandt, one of those rare politicians whose name can habitually be found in the same sentence as the word "humane".

As chancellor in the early 1970s of then West Germany, he was referring to the country's policy of inviting workers, many Turkish, to take up low- grade jobs Germans were turning their backs on.

Workers, he implied, are more than just the "instruments of labour" that many employers may think of them as. And it was this recognition that led to many of those "guests" claiming German citizenship rather than being shipped back home once their "hands" were no longer needed.

For some reason this quotation came to mind when reading two recent headlines in the news pages of FE Focus. The first related to a report, commissioned by the 157 Group of colleges, which urged FE providers to consider turning themselves into businesses. By converting from a corporation to a company structure, the report's author Glynne Stanfield of the law firm Eversheds argued, colleges could run not only schools and private training companies, but branch out into a number of related commercial ventures.

The headline on the second story, published a couple of weeks later, could be seen as an antidote to the first. It read: "Loss-making businesses leave Grimsby pound;250k out of pocket" - this being the Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education, which had a controlling interest in some 20 businesses, including a golf club, a TV station and a function suite.

Between them, these stories exemplify the perennial question that lies behind much of education: what is it actually for? Schools, albeit they acknowledge that preparation for work is an important part of their role, are more likely to emphasise their mission in terms of nurturing the individual and developing each child's potential to the full.

But colleges, it could be argued, are different. They make no bones about providing training as well as education. And training is surely all about giving people the skills they need to perform at work. Most colleges have formal and informal links to local employers. In the days when Britain made things, it wasn't unknown for the mill owner to double as the chair of governors of the local tech.

But is that the same as colleges being businesses in their own right? Overlap there may be but, to extend the words of Herr Brandt, do they share the same purposes and goals when dealing with those who pass through their doors?

Businesses, of course, have need of people. And sometimes they will develop and improve them. But that's not their core role or responsibility. Their primary purpose is to make a profit. If employees stand in the way, their services will be dispensed with.

By contrast, any student in a college found to be "not up to the job" is offered encouragement, support and assistance. If that fails, they will be offered an alternative course that better fits their needs.

While they must stay solvent, profit per se is not what colleges are about - or not what they should be about. Perhaps this is why it often happens that when colleges try and ape the capitalists they end up making a hash of it.

It's interesting to note that the models held up for emulation are those of pioneering or successful enterprises: the Microsofts and Virgins of this world. Would-be entrepreneurs FE-style might like to reflect, however, that the corporate culture that nurtured such masters of the universe as Bill Gates and Sir Richard Branson also gave suck to Sir Fred Goodwin and that mother of loss-makers - The Royal Bank of Scotland.

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