New year will ring in many new freedoms

4th December 2009 at 00:00
Comment: Alan Thomson

The realists - some may say pessimists - among us are fond of the saying: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

It is not a bad principle to live by and is surely one that further education will be applying this week in the face of promises to allow our leading colleges a remarkable degree of autonomy over their own affairs from next autumn (page 1).

Pessimism is not the FE way - how could it be with all that it has to do? But it is nothing if not realistic. So it will be pursuing the devil in the detail of the Government's plans to allow one in seven colleges far greater control over their adult learning budgets, student numbers and courses.

They are offered all of this, plus the promise of less scrutiny and inspections, the freedom to develop their own qualifications and even to set their level of borrowing.

One reason why the deal may not be all that it first appears is that there are a great number of cooks in the adult education kitchen. There is the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), which the Government says will be a straightforward body with a contracting role rather than a planning remit but which will obviously have some oversight over the public money it disburses.

Then there are the nine regional development agencies (RDA) which develop the regional skills strategies that are binding on the SFA and so learning providers. In addition, there are 150 local authorities that have effective power of veto over RDA strategies.

And, not to be left out, national government has its priority areas for skills including industries such as information technology and low carbon.

How much room for manouevre the promised autonomy really allows colleges remains to be seen. But the Government's commitment on college independence for the top 15 per cent of colleges is a step in the right direction.

The principle of college autonomy is sound. Universities are largely free to respond to the higher education market as they see fit and, as a result, the higher education system is diverse and high quality.

But it is also right that colleges must earn their autonomy by assuming greater responsibility for their own quality and systems for improvement.

As they do, then so should the Government be prepared to extend autonomy beyond just the 15 per cent.

Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus; E: alan.thomson@tsleducation.com.

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