Look to data to fill our knowledge gaps

30th July 2010 at 01:00

While the dust settles in the wake of the new coalition Government, colleges and universities must grapple with the unknowable while trying to plan a financially secure and viable future. The good news is that spending on 16- to 19-year-olds will be protected from any in-year spending cuts. The bad is that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is taking one of the biggest hits of any department - indicating that all areas under its banner are contenders for further cuts.

Funding formulas for further education have always been notoriously complicated. A survey by student records specialist Capita FHE showed that a staggering 75 per cent of colleges have experienced difficulties achieving a balance between forecasting what funding they will receive, and planning the curriculum they would like to offer - and have had to cancel courses as a result. It seems that the new Government is attempting to address this head-on, offering the prospect of a single FE funding body in the form of a resurrected Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) or possibly even a combined FE and HE funding body. The aim of this is to simplify the system and give educational institutions more freedom.

Colleges are used to tough challenges, but with streamlining top of the agenda, it's vital they put their houses in order. Whatever the political or economic backdrop, some priorities don't change and it is these colleges need to concentrate on until things become more certain. Improving retention rates, ensuring budgets are maximised and being able to demonstrate the impact a college has on a student's learning are areas where colleges can do better. This will help them be more financially effective and is something they can address with the systems that most of them already have in place.

A thorn in the side for all colleges is student retention, with drop-out rates in some as high as 20 per cent and the bulk of students lost within the first few weeks. Swift and decisive action is critical to stem the flow. Colleges need to know why students are leaving - debt, boredom, even poor teaching - but to prevent it they need to monitor their students from the very beginning.

For example, keeping an eye on attendance patterns and cross-referencing with missed homework means tutors can spot early signs that something is amiss and intervene appropriately. The anecdotal evidence is that drop-out rates can be reduced to just 1 to 2 per cent when straightforward types of preventative measures are taken.

Whenever resources are tightly stretched, using the most expensive ones effectively will make the most impact. In further education this is the teaching staff, followed by property. It can be surprisingly difficult to timetable staff allocation and room use efficiently, yet most of the colleges I visit already record this data accurately. What doesn't always happen is the analysis of it to glean the information they need to run a tight ship and ensure time is not wasted.

Correct analysis means patterns can be spotted, problems can be identified and intervention can be undertaken. At this stage in the game, not interrogating collected data rigorously is one of the worst mistakes a college could make.

George Layfield, Sales manager, Capita Further and Higher Education (FHE).

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