Finland may seem an unlikely place from which to draw lessons for the future of further education. And yet it is a dynamic country boasting an institution we in the UK lack: a parliamentary Committee for the Future.
The Finnish Institute recently held a discussion in London on the Committee for the Future's latest report. One participant, Perry Walker, of the New Economics Foundation, told an instructive anecdote about the oil giant, Shell.
Strategists once asked the planning department to model how Shell would react to a drop in the price of oil below 10 dollars a barrel. Impossible, absurd, came the reply, there was no point in considering such an eventuality. So the question was rephrased "What if . . .?"
Sure enough, nine months later the price of oil fell through the floor and Shell stole a significant competitive advantage over its rivals. It alone had modelled the scenario.
Further education colleges would do well to emulate Shell's example and model possible future scenarios for themselves. That doesn't mean engaging in fruitless predictive exercises but simply imagining the future as it might be, could be, or even should be.
Take the issue of college governance. Most discussion of the status of colleges is framed by the polar opposition between local authority control and incorporation.
This is a narrow and limiting opposition. It implies that colleges are either autonomous or controlled.
A college may have freedom of manoeuvre but only within wider networks: it must answer to the FE funding council, which determines its specific funding environment, and submit a strategic plan to the local training and enterprise council. It has to establish a modus operandi with employers and the local authority, and so on. Corporate status is always a relative autonomy, determined by a web of relations which are open to change and development.
Similarly, a college's relationship to an elected tier of government does not need to be subordinate or competitive. Strong partnerships between colleges and local authorities involve constructive dialogue through which aims and objectives are mutually defined.
These partnerships can be formalised by ensuring that a college is represented on the local authority education committee and vice-versa, though the co-option of councillors and officers onto a corporation's governing body.
Likewise, local authorities could be formally represented in decision-making structures at regional and national levels, strengthening democratic participation in further education and ensuring that the development of the sector is no longer distinct from that of other public services.
Ideally, FE colleges should have a mechanism which can do two things: conduct strategic thinking and involve the community more widely in key decisions. This is where the model of citizens' juries could be particularly fruitful.
Citizens' juries have been developed over the past 20 years in Germany and the USA. The idea has been pioneered in practice by the Institute for Public Policy Research in the UK.
A citizens' jury is made of a small group (12-16) of ordinary people who are recruited broadly to represent the community. They are not chosen for any expertise or vested interest, but as active citizens.
The jury deliberates upon an important question of policy or planning. It hears evidence from witnesses and cross-examines them, analyses information, and discusses different aspects of the issue in small groups and plenary sessions. After the process is complete - and in the IPPR model the jurors are brought together for four days - a report containing a set of recommendations is published.
Citizens' juries are usually commission ed by an organisation which has the capacity to act on their recommendations. In 1996, IPPR ran a pilot series of five citizens' juries in different parts of the country, all of which addressed key health policy issues: rationing, mental health services, palliative care and NHS funding.
In each case, the commissioning body has to publicise the jurors' recommendation s, respond within a set time, and publicly state its reasons for not following any particular recommendation.
The relevance of citizens' juries to further education is clear. Formal mechanisms for democratic participation in the sector are extremely limited by the quango mould into which the sector was cast after 1992. This democratic deficit must be addressed. But formal processes can also be strengthened and informed by new participatory and deliberative forums.
Further education colleges or regional committees, even the FEFC itself, could commission citizens' juries in order to inform decision-making processes and deepen active democratic participation in the sector. This would complement, strengthen and improve on any new lines of participation introduced to remedy the wider democratic deficit in the sector.
Colleges are learning institutions that serve the community as a whole, citizens' juries would deepen that connection and commitment to local citizens.
Such juries would also promote strategic thinking within the sector and ensure that the voice of local communities was directly communicated to decision-makers. Jurors are independent. They have time, information, and the opportunity to scrutinise and deliberate.
Citizens' juries could be used to develop policy or guide planning decisions. They could adjudicate upon a college's strategic plan, its curriculum offer or community outreach programmes, any college rationalisations, or more widely on regional developments.
Anybody in further education would have sympathy with those who had to communicate the details of the FEFC funding methodology to jurors. But for those who argue that decisions are too complex, too specific or somehow beyond the capacity of ordinary citizens, the answer must be an emphatic No. Further education would benefit immeasurably from the involvement of active and informed citizens.
Nick Pearce is a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research