Colleges should be judged by the "public value" they add to the social, cultural and economic life of the nation, says a further education research unit.
This "vital contribution" is just as important as the qualifications achieved and performance targets reached, says the Learning and Skills Development Agency. The agency's paper Public value and learning and skills argues that the drive to meet targets has been pursued to the detriment of further education and to the public's perception of quality.
The paper says: "A focus on performance targets encourages providers to focus on delivering narrow outcomes rather than engaging with users to meet a broad range of individual needs.
"National targets and performance outcomes do not necessarily measure what the public values most, nor do they tell the whole story in terms of benefits offered."
The agency's 25-page document aims to stimulate debate about how "public value might enable the sector to develop and maintain its public reputation and political legitimacy". Authors Peter Grigg and Caroline Mager argue that colleges need to contribute to wider government priorities such as social and community cohesion, equality, neighbourhood renewal and economic prosperity.
They call for further research on public value as a performance measure for colleges. "From the 1980s onwards, public-sector performance measurement increasingly concentrated on the micro-management of specific targets and on inspection. This has been termed New Public Management. There is now a view that, as government has sought to drive up the efficiency and effectiveness of services through target-setting, their true value has been impoverished.
"While focusing on specific objectives was intended to improve services, there is a fear it has made them less responsive to individuals and less adept at delivering what the public really wants."
Maggie Galliers, principal of Leicester College, said at the launch of the paper: "Public value is difficult to pin down, to know how and when you have achieved it. It involves measuring intangibles, such as how much people feel in control, how much choice they have, how well disposed they feel towards government, and deciding which benchmarks we are testing against.
"How can we better establish the identity of FE and its indispensable role in skilling the nation and creating a cohesive and inclusive society? Do we need to adopt a private-sector approach to promoting ourselves?"