Bigger doesn't always mean better colleges

16th April 2010 at 01:00
Commnet: Alan Thomson

"Efficiency" is a loaded word. Frequently prefixed by words like "ruthless", "greater" or "with typical German" and usually suffixed with "gains", it is often used by people accusing others of inefficiency.

But what is efficiency? One teacher doing the work of two will be more financially efficient but not necessarily better in terms of imparting knowledge. Similarly, spending more on student services may not denote inefficiency but reflect local necessity.

Generally though, in the world of FE, size brings benefits with the sector's big beasts battering down costs to achieve economies of scale. It means that many, though not all, of the top 25 per cent most efficient colleges identified by Tribal (page 1) will tend to be bigger colleges, many members of the 157 Group, which includes size of turnover in its criteria for membership.

One conclusion drawn from the Tribal data is that if less efficient, generally smaller colleges were as efficient as the most efficient, generally larger providers then the FE sector could save a lot of money - enough to cover the cuts to adult education, in fact.

The logical thing to do, therefore, is for FE providers to pursue size and efficiency through merger, federation and shared central services arrangements. But what if FE's quest for ever greater efficiency creates a breed of FE megafauna? In ten years will the FE landscape be dominated by giant providers trying to become even bigger in order to remain competitive?

Predictions of mass merger in FE have been wide of the mark so far but there is a direction of travel here. There have been more than 80 mergers since incorporation in 1993, a significant cull during a time of relative plenty.

In leaner times the rate of mergers and other cost-cutting co-habitations is likely to accelerate. And while big does not always mean efficient, as the Tribal data indicates, it would be a shame if the current drive for efficiency damaged FE diversity.

The early signs are that it won't, as colleges seek solutions that retain local character and provision while reaping central savings.

The bigger picture, as 157's Lynne Sedgmore indicates, is that FE as a whole is already the one of the most efficient parts of the education system. One wonders what Tribal would find if it compared FE colleges with school sixth forms or universities.

Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus

E: alan.thomson@tsleducation.com.

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