Wales faces a question of quantity and quality
The FE sector in Wales has undergone huge changes in recent years, with the Welsh government's restructuring resulting in a series of high- profile mergers and closures.
The overall number of colleges dropped from 25 to 20 in under five years. By April there will be 19 institutions and experts predict that just 14 could be left in five years' time as the push towards fewer but larger institutions gathers pace.
But in the midst of this radical restructuring, the FE sector is facing another major challenge in the shape of the recently launched review of 14-19 qualifications. The government wants the system overhauled to make it simpler and cheaper: 17,000 qualifications are currently available to those aged 14 or over in Wales, all of which are eligible for public funding.
Last week ColegauCymru, which represents all colleges in Wales, invited more than 150 educationalists to a national conference in Cardiff to discuss the implications of the review. An explosion of choice has led to a corresponding rise in learner numbers, but some argue that this has come at the cost of quality.
The latest figures for 2010-11 suggest a rise in the number of students on full-time courses. But last week new statistics pointed to a huge rise in the number of 16 to 18-year-olds classed as Neet (not in education, employment or training) in Wales, up from 13,000 in the first half of 2010 to 15,300 in 2011.
Many are concerned that the review might lead to a significant cutback on what colleges can offer such potential students. However, Jeff Cuthbert, the Assembly government's deputy minister for skills, sought to reassure educationalists that the outcome of the review was not already decided. "Any changes we make will be made on the basis of what the evidence tells us and not because of any preconceived ideas about what may or may not be fit for purpose," he said.
Mr Cuthbert said Professor Alison Wolf's groundbreaking review of vocational qualifications in England last year contained "very important messages" for Wales.
At the ColegauCymru conference, Professor Wolf outlined her research and recommendations and predicted a divergence in the qualifications system between England and Wales within the next 10 years. She praised Wales's outlook and said she would watch the review with interest. "The broad qualification programme is something you should build on," she said. "It's something we have lost sight of in England."
She said it should be easier for vocational experts to teach in schools, even if they are not qualified teachers - something she suggested it might be easier to do in Wales because of the increased collaboration between schools and colleges.
It is clear that the review team, led by Huw Evans, former principal of Coleg Llandrillo Cymru, has a tough task ahead. Issues that were debated included the credibility of particular qualifications, the role of the qualifications regulator, whether the number of qualifications available should be reduced and whether competence-based qualifications can be taught in a classroom or only in the workplace.
However, some common themes are beginning to emerge, particularly the need for flexibility in the qualifications market, a recognition that qualifications must lead to employability and a parity of esteem between academic and vocational choices. There is also a tacit agreement that Wales should have its own distinct qualifications identity within a UK context, while being mindful of the "ripple effect" from changes to England's system.
The review team is taking evidence until May, followed by a formal consultation exercise between June and August. A final report is expected by November. Expect sparks to fly.