MPs told of the tangled web that has been woven

3rd February 2012 at 00:00
FE leaders say the sector is stifled by the burden of red tape

During his time as chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), Geoff Russell has gained a reputation as an intense and complex character. But as he sat as a witness in a Public Accounts Committee hearing that examined how bureaucracy should be reduced in the FE sector, he could have been forgiven for allowing himself a wry smile. A smile of relief that, come July, it will all be over - for him at least.

Mr Russell's retirement may be imminent but, as the hearing made clear, few expect the red tape that has stifled the sector for so long to be untangled any time soon. The committee was informed that, for every #163;5 that goes to FE, #163;1 is swallowed up by bureaucracy.

At the start of the hearing, the committee heard from Association of Colleges chief executive Martin Doel, Cambridge Regional College (CRC) vice-principal Chris Lang and Bedford College principal Ian Pryce about the massive administrative burdens they have to contend with on a daily basis.

The biggest difficulties, MPs heard, are caused by colleges having to deal with very different data obligations and regulations from several agencies simultaneously.

A general FE college offering higher education provision, Mr Lang explained, has to accommodate the requirements of four different funding bodies - the Department for Education, the Young People's Learning Agency, the SFA and the Higher Education Funding Council for England - as well as policy directives from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

"They are all coming with different rules on funding, different audit and data requirements," Mr Doel told MPs.

When asked what could be done to make the process easier, he replied: "Collect information once and share it with the different parties, rather than collect it several times."

The issues are compounded, the college representatives agreed, by the regular changes in arrangements implemented by the different bodies under the guise of simplification.

"One of the good things ... has been that the allocation system has stayed the same this year, for the second year running," Mr Pryce quipped, prompting nervous laughter from the MPs. Next year, of course, the funding system will be different. It is being "simplified" again. Mr Lang estimated that CRC spends #163;20,000-#163;30,000 a year on training, away days and consultants to ensure that staff understand the latest raft of rules and regulations.

Contending with the proliferation of awarding bodies - no fewer than 20 in the case of Bedford College, Mr Pryce claimed - adds an even greater administrative burden, the committee heard. Each exam board has its own individual data requirements. "For awarding bodies," Mr Doel said, "not using the unique learner number seems to be a missed opportunity".

"BIS operates a one in, one out rule around new regulations. It would be good to see that rule applied to colleges," Mr Doel added. But, he concluded, there "needs to be a richness and degree of complexity to give the colleges the tools they need".

With BIS being responsible for adult education, and the DfE for 16 to 18-year-olds, committee chair Margaret Hodge MP asked Martin Donnelly, permanent secretary at BIS, which department had ultimate responsibility for FE. As anyone in the sector knows, there is no simple answer. Mr Donnelly's brave attempt to explain the nuances of the arrangement met with repeated interruptions and sighs from Ms Hodge, who was clearly frustrated by the difficulty of getting to the bottom of the "ruddy complex" tangle of structures and policies.

"We can't run this business in a very, very simple way," Mr Russell said. But for him, at least, there is some consolation: it will soon be somebody else's problem.

Mounting costs

3.6% of Skills Funding Agency and Young People's Learning Agency funding is spent on administration.

#163;180m is the annual administration cost for colleges.

#163;250m to 300m is the annual administration cost for all FE providers.

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