Looking for a mission that already exists
Are we killing further education by accident? This Parliament has not been kind to colleges. Unlike schools or universities, FE colleges have suffered significant spending cuts, a loss of provision and falling student numbers. At least 50 colleges in England are rumoured to be in financial difficulty.
The flip side is that many FE institutions are finding new opportunities outside the sector - often in schools or higher education. Not only do these ventures provide income, they also allow greater autonomy and freedom to innovate.
FE was once famously described as everything that doesn't happen in schools and universities. It was memorable but it didn't say what FE actually did. Today the description would encompass everything educational that happens everywhere.
The sector is increasingly all things to all people. It has always been for the young, the old, those in and out of work, and those who want to prepare for a career. As 157 Group co-founder Frank McLoughlin declared, "It's about work." But now FE is also about running university centres, academies, free schools and prison education. It often does these things well - but so, too, do others.
And yet politicians of all parties continue to talk of a skills crisis and the need to create new vocational training opportunities. They all have plans for FE and most involve radical change. Labour's education spokesman, Tristram Hunt, wants new qualifications - the Technical Baccalaureate for 16- to 19-year-olds and technical degrees, a proposal that reaches deep into higher education. He is also backing newly licensed institutes of technical excellence. The party has made "the forgotten 50 per cent" a major election theme.
The Liberal Democrat business secretary Vince Cable, meanwhile, has decided that a new generation of national colleges is needed to support growth sectors across the economy. The Conservatives have made much of a new generation of specialist colleges that will train engineers for the HS2 high-speed rail project, for building and decommissioning nuclear reactors and the like. But few talk much about FE as a distinct sector.
Of course, the national skills academies and centres of vocational excellence that the politicians seem to have forgotten show that dissatisfaction with general FE or calls for specialisation are nothing new. And it is true that colleges need to be known for more than doing everything reasonably well or being a second or third choice when learners have failed elsewhere.
Yet FE is hard to grasp or define. It is complex and multifaceted - just like schools and universities but with significantly less political or media profile. Even those in the sector can struggle to describe what it alone does best.
Skills shortages or full-blown skills crises occasionally break into the national consciousness. At which point, many policymakers assume that FE colleges must be failing in some way. Real reform is a hard slog and few politicians stick around long enough to deliver it.
Too much of a good thing
In recent years, this has led to deliberate fragmentation and to mission drift. That is not to say that FE colleges haven't performed well - quite the opposite: many government initiatives would have floundered without colleges. But we now have academies, university technical colleges, free and studio schools, and new university centres, to name just a few. It is too broad a spectrum. Diversity is also developing within institutions and a new type of provider is emerging. Group structures are proliferating, with a college acting as the holding company behind several very different entities and missions. Look at Newcastle, Birmingham Met, Cornwall or LeSoCo and you'll find higher education, schools, academic sixth forms and much more besides.
Maybe this is the moment when all education sectors blur and fragment as new forms and collaborations emerge. Is there much difference, practically speaking, between academy chains such as Ark or universities such as Wolverhampton, which runs several local academies? Perhaps the labels don't mean much any more. Perhaps FE, like comprehensive schools, has become part of an age and a set of ideals that have passed.
The blurring of boundaries or a rush to growth is a problem only if the most important activity is diluted or neglected. National colleges and institutes of technical excellence remind us of that vital focus. FE must not become a catch-all. If anything, Cable and Hunt are closest to a viable vision of what colleges need to do. They may be saving the sector.
But if FE has a mission and a purpose, then it must also be given the means to realise it. This is not only a matter of hard cash but of real freedom to be innovative. Colleges must be hard-wired into the economy. The skills they deploy and teach must meet real economic needs and not those of centrally planned targets and frameworks. All that will be hard to achieve with the current complex, over-mighty web of awarding bodies, inspectorates and funding bodies. Things have to change.
If colleges continue to do a bit of everything for everybody and funding is squeezed across the board, then FE may disappear in any meaningful sense. And if that happens, it will be as much the fault of those in the sector as those who govern it. Competing with or wanting to be treated the same as schools or universities cannot be the answer.
Colleges have a future only if they do some things much better than anyone else. And that future will be brightest if those things have the right focus. That has always been about mid- to high-level technical education and training, networked into local economies and specialist sectors. It is something that the UK has been poor at for many decades. But in today's fast-changing global and digital economy, it is more important than ever. No one else is going to be able to do it quite as well. And if we don't pull it off, FE colleges won't be the only ones in trouble.
Andy Westwood is chief executive of GuildHE, a formally recognised representative body for higher education