Reform and profit

6th July 2007 at 01:00

Collaboration not competition is the key to improving educational quality

RECENT FE reforms took little account of the needs of students as learners and at last people are beginning to acknowledge that. Policy makers steeped in business knowledge found it easier to think of college as a commercial organisation selling services and products.

The theory is simple, customers make choices to buy products or use services for an array of reasons. Some motives involve self-indulgence, others necessity. Competitors offer similar commodities and, relative to the amount of capital they possess, customers have to make a choice.

Whether the product is a chocolate bar or a gym club subscription, only customer satisfaction will ensure the long-term success of the business. The market model predicts that the influence of this ultimately improves "quality" while making sure the product suits customer needs and relevant management systems. It is these indirect consequences that achieve improvement while preserving cost effectiveness.

The latest FE reforms have all been based on such assumptions. Policy makers have focused on transforming the structures of institutions with the aim of making management more business orientated. For example, targets in the form of results are converted into concepts of profit, while college principals have performance-related pay for increased sales (i.e. recruitment).

Most lectures, however, have only been on the receiving end of these developments. Their role is to deal with the bureaucracy of business rather than educating students.

Their lack of confidence in the power of such reforms to improve the quality of education should come as no shock. The lecturers' classroom perspective has been largely ignored, while the last few years have seen considerable increases in the burden of administrative duties.

It is doubtful whether lecturers will be comforted by the Learning and Skills Council agenda for change champion Ray Dowd's recent confession that the reforms gave inadequate attention to the needs of students. In fact, the reforms have reinforced the idea that the "student" is no more, and that what we have now is just another type of "customer".

An inevitable consequence of this conceptual shift is the loss of our community ideals of college. There was no real public debate about this because there has been no openness about what was actually at stake. All we have been peddled is the mantra that competition and market economics will improve services.

However, students do not treat education as a commercial activity. Thus, the nature of the competition can never be defined. It is not as if students can choose between three providers each offering the same service.

In fact, where colleges compete locally, there is often a reduction in student choice as institutions seek to shore up their own market segment. Recent studies by researchers Mick Fletcher and Geoff Stanton suggest government should be encouraging greater collaboration among 14-19 providers. But, given the funding mechanisms in place, it is unlikely local schools and competing colleges could plan provision impartially.

In the current context, when collaboration does occur it too often resembles corporate negotiations. And the postcode lottery of NHS provision will soon characterise the quality students can expect.

There has to be a transformation in political thinking where accountability and quality are not solely dependent on competitive models. The corporate culture of colleges would need a revolution. Students and lecturers would need to view themselves not as customers and sales assistants, but as collaborators in learning.

Locally, there would need to be more debate with students about the kind of 14-19 education and training that would meet their needs. With so many vested interests, we may have a long wait to find someone who will promote this sort of change in FE.

Nigel Newton is a lecturer and educational researcher at New College, Swindon

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