Scottish lessons to translate;Interview;Professor John Sizer

10th September 1999 at 01:00
Professor John Sizer is the man at the top of Scotland's further and higher education councils. Chris Johnston talks to him about his role and what England should import IN EDUCATIONAL terms - as well as other respects - Scotland has always been different from England. One example of these differences is the fact that 40 per cent of the provision in the further education sector is in the form of higher courses.

Given such intertwining, it perhaps makes sense that the recently created Scottish Further Education Council shares not only a building with its HE counterpart, but an executive and a chief executive, Professor John Sizer.

It is still early days for the council, which finally puts Scottish colleges on the same footing as those in England or Wales. Previously, they were funded by local authorities and then by the Scottish Office. According to Professor Sizer the lack of a dedicated funding council meant further education did not get the attention it deserved.

He is confident of the logic of linking the councils so closely: as well as economies of scale, it allows for complementary policies and for resources to be moved around if necessary.

Another factor than cannot be overlooked is Scotland's geography: "It is a small place and all the key people know each other. A lot of natural bonding and networking takes place," he says.

Education is likely to become an even hotter issue in Scotland now that it is a key area of responsibility of the new parliament. A minister for enterprise and lifelong learning - Henry McLeish - and a committee of the same title (convened by John Swinney, of the Scottish National Party) will oversee the pound;1 billion budget of the further and higher education councils - a figure that represents about one-fifteenth of the parliament's budget.

With some MSPs having seats but not electorates to worry about, many could be desperately searching for issues to take up.

Professor Sizer agrees that education is likely to come under closer scrutiny, but to him this will be a positive development.

"Since the HE council was established in 1992, I've appeared twice before two House of Lords committees but I've never given evidence to a House of Commons committee.

"Being able to give evidence to the enterprise and lifelong learning committee and feel that you have the opportunity not only to be scrutinised but also to justify what you're doing and get feedback is something I welcome."

So if Scotland can get by with this arrangement, is autonomy for the English funding councils doomed? Professor Sizer, for one, does not believe so.

He points to the sheer size of the English councils' combined budgets - some pound;10bn - as well as the number of institutions.

Scotland is a very different story: there are just 18 HE institutions and 48 colleges. Professor Sizer says it is reasonably easy to gather all the principals for a meeting: "You can't do those sorts of things in England. Here, because we can keep close without interfering, it is much more manageable."

Professor Sizer says the name of the FE game is now collaboration, not competition. He believes this is being recognised in the sector and that an invitation for bids for regional collaboration projects issued recently will aid this process. There is also a significant amount of collaboration between universities and colleges, he says, partly because Scottish students are less likely to move away from home to attend university.

Professor Sizer began his education in FE at Grimsby College of Technology, before going on to Nottingham University and becoming professor of financial management of Loughborough University in 1970, a post he held for 16 years.

He is coy about identifying any lessons that the English could learn from Scotland, but does suggest that the low-level involvement in activities such as franchising has allowed Scottish colleges to focus more closely on their core mission. Also, the high participation rate has largely spared Scottish colleges the burden of rapid expansion.

He also mentions the continued involvement of Her Majesty's inspectors in colleges: "There have been virtually no highly critical reports of quality up here, while they seem to crawl out of the woodwork fairly regularly down south."

The arrival at the Further Education Funding Council of Jim Donaldson, who was in charge of FE inspection in Scotland, means England and Wales are largely adopting the Scottish model. Professor Sizer also wonders whether the absence of college financial scandals means Scotland has higher standards in public life.

One of his goals is to benchmark Scottish FE against the best in the world, and to foster more collaboration between colleges in Scotland and England.

Another priority will be commissioning research to ensure that funding methodologies are correct.

Overall, he believes the new council has a clear view of its task, but admits that in the long-term a single council covering funding for both further and higher education would make sense.

"It's rather artificial to differentiate, but it's important that FE doesn't suffer from academic drift. Advanced FE is crucial to Scotland's competitiveness - lifelong learning has to be at the heart of a knowledge based economy."

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