I'm beginning to feel like a mouse in the lab

13th April 2001 at 01:00
You don't have to be an economist to remember, or even appreciate, the observation by J K Galbraith, about what he described as the experiment in monetarist economics that was about to be used as an instrument of policy by the newly elected government of Margaret Thatcher.

Despite his antipathy to monetarism he indicated his professional interest and welcomed the fact that at last monetarism was to be applied in a mature, stable democracy with solid social institutions and an educated, civilised populace.

I was reminded of Galbraith's remarks when a new member of my board of management was asking about the funding regime within which the college operated. I began by explaining how SUMs (student units of measurement) were or were not counted, in the case of the 25 per cent rule, then described the intricacies of the weighting factor system and moved on to recurrent grant-in aid (abridged version) and how the college SUMs target was established.

I could tell that he was in trouble by this stage, and I know he wondered whether I understood the system myself. What soon became clear was that he thought it daft. One problem was that the funding mechanism was so arcane as to be positively masonic. More significantly, it seemed to him that the basic unit of resource - the SUM value - was too low. He certainly understood that the unit of resource was linked to the volume of activity posited for the sector and that this was essentially a political decision predicated on the need to increase the number of students in colleges. What he could not understand, and I could not really explain, was how the Government conjured up a figure of 40,000 extra students and why if it was admitting the sector was so badly underfunded from the previous regime it did not consolidate properly instead of attempting further underfunded expansion.

We moved o to discuss the fee waiver grant compensation scheme (it was a fun night) and how difficult it was to estimate and budget for this, and we finished by exploring the Byzantine regulations governing European funding.

My companion's conclusion was that this was a system devised by those who either did not understand or did not care about the effects of uncertainty on management decision-making, especially within the context of public policy.

The only way he could understand it all was as an experiment. Here was the scenario: perhaps FE was too complex a sector, ministers did not understand it properly, but here was a good model, certainly worth a try, so they would go for it.

The worst that could happen was that the sector would get into financial difficulties, but it was only further education, so politically it was not of great significance. In any case there were bound to be some winners so they could be praised as examples of how the system might work if properly managed and the others could be pitied or publicly vilified depending on the prevailing mood.

I'll leave you to make up your own mind about his scenario, but I assure you that no drink had been taken when this was stated. We stopped then without discussing the other two great experiments - Higher Still and the abolition of national bargaining for the FE sector. By this stage we'd both had enough.

Back to Galbraith, who in 1979 concluded his observation by indicating that, while he relished the prospect of watching the Thatcherite monetarist experiment, he had considerable sympathy for those who would have to live through it. Those who have lived through the various Scottish FE experiments these past few years will understand what he meant.

Norman Williamson is principal of Coatbridge College and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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