Political toing and froing will be felt by FE

14th May 2010 at 01:00
Comment: Alan Thomson

In a week when politics appeared to defy gravity, anything seemed possible - even the reuniting of colleges and universities with schools in an education department.

As staff prised off plaques bearing the title "Department for Children, Schools and Families" from Whitehall offices and replaced them with "Department for Education", FE was abuzz with rumours that it would be "going home".

Would it not, after all, be a nonsense to have an education department missing further and higher education?

As FE Focus went to press, it remained unclear whether FE and HE would secede from BIS to education. And, despite the strong feelings of many in FE that colleges and universities belong with schools, there remains a logic to housing colleges and universities within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

The new Business Secretary, Vince Cable, may welcome control over training and skills as he sets out to breathe new life into the UK's faltering economy.

There is a potential fly in the ointment, however. What happens if the review of university tuition fees, under Lord Browne, recommends that they rise to, say, pound;7,000 a year, or that the cap is removed completely?

Dr Cable's Liberal Democrat party remains opposed to university tuition fees. And, while Dr Cable may be more pragmatic on such issues, it would place him in a difficult position as the Lib Dem head of a department responsible, potentially, for raising the cost of university education.

The coalition agreement published this week says that the Lib Dems can abstain from any fees vote, but it is surely inconceivable that any secretary of state could sit out a vote on his own department's policy. It is also barely credible that Dr Cable could retain the skills brief and that universities would move to the education department.

Whether FE stays put or moves, it seems that providers can look forward to greater freedom under either a Further Education Funding Council or a combined FE-HE body for adult education that promise to minimise the state's planning role. The latter body would bring the additional benefit of opening the door to a proper student support mechanism for adult FE students.

Both would mean further upheaval for the sector. But, in a week when all things seemed possible, the sector may think more disruption is a price worth paying for the chance to enhance its autonomy.

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