The way forward seems to be going backwards

13th October 2000 at 01:00
WILL it be just business as usual for the Magnificent 47?

Remember Groundhog Day? It's the film where the hero is condemned to the nightmare of living through the same day over and over again. Whisper it softly, but I have the strangest feeling that something similar is about to happen in FE.

For FE we'll have to change the title of course. Maybe "Snouts in the Post-16 Trough Day" would cover it. OK, so it's not as snappy as the original, but at least it gives an idea as to what I'm talking about.

The sense of deja vu in this case takes us back to the early 1990s, and those heady days of post-incorporation "freedom" for colleges.

Suddenly all the old educational verities were declared redundant (not to mention half the nation's lecturers) and everything in further education was henceforth to be run strictly on "business" principles.

Local needs, the disadvantaged, the minorities - all were now secondary to the great imperative of making money. And if you could rake in more of it by selling some tacky course to a bunch of mugs at the other end of the country, then go for it, because if you don't then hey, somebody else surely will.

One of the tragedies of those times was that half the colleges busy reinventing themselves as businesses with a capital B ended up aping the wrong sort of business. You know the ones I mean - at least if you've ever tried to switch from one electricity company to another you do. For these companies the "telling arse from elbow" test is much too advanced a concept. They're still at the stage of identifying the arse. And then, when they find him, it turns out he's the one running the company!

Nevertheless, some colleges undoubtedly prospered in the virile new atmosphere of competition. Others found life more of a struggle. And then the tales of failure, bankruptcy and ruin began to come in. Often it was the very colleges held up as examples to follow that fell apart so spectacularly two or three years down the line.

And it wasn't only the institutions themselves that changed at this time. So did many of the people connected with them. Nowhere was this truer than among the business types. Hitherto they tended to be of the old school - worthy governors and the like who saw the role of the college as a sort of assembly line, stampig out neatly finished "products" to work in their factories, mills and offices.

As the old industries disappeared, so were their owners replaced by the advocates of the new business world. These men (and women too now) came complete with a smart chip in every orifice, and a smart line on how the "new FE" was to be.

For them, anyone who taught for a living had had their day. The new technology was about to junk all that. Pretty soon there would be no teachers and no colleges either, just a massive bunker on the outskirts of Milton Keynes bristling with antennae and serviced by two dozen technicians in white coats.

So what, I hear you ask, does all this have to do with the here and now? Haven't things moved on since the great business bonanza of '93? Well, yes. but then perhaps they haven't moved quite as far as some of us might like.

In particular, what are we to make of recent appointments to the new Learning and Skills Councils? There are a magnificent 47 of these regional bodies - scheduled to take over the work of the Further Education Funding Council in the new year - and what seems like forty-six-and-a-half of the top jobs within them have gone to people with business backgrounds. Sanctioned as they are by the Secretary of State, it is hard to believe this is mere coincidence.

Today everyone in colleges accepts that they should be run in a business-like manner. But that "like" is an important qualification. Colleges are not businesses. Yes, they must be solvent, but making a profit is not what they are meant to be about.

Providing qualified people to keep the economy ticking over is one of their functions - but it is not the only one. Business and other career-related courses are a large part of their work; but there are plenty of other things going on in them as well which have no direct vocational purpose.

The new councils will have responsibility for all post-16 education and training, not just that part of it sometimes labelled "preparation for work".

With this in mind it's surely up to the rest of us to keep a careful eye on our Magnificent Forty-Seven and try our best to keep them from repeating the folly of the past.

Do they, I wonder, remember Groundhog Day? I hope so.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer in a London FE college

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