Welsh Assembly turns college autonomy on its head
The border between England and Wales is, for further education, becoming a fault line: the Welsh Assembly Government is planning changes which will leave colleges on either side with radically different powers.
While the coalition administration in Westminster promises ever-increasing autonomy for colleges, in Wales the Labour-Plaid Cymru Government is threatening to dismantle the independence they have enjoyed for 17 years.
Leighton Andrews, the Welsh Assembly minister for children, schools and lifelong learning, has appointed a review group to investigate proposals for new governance systems, which is due to report by the end of the year. Headed by the former Niace Dysgu Cymru director Rob Humphreys, who now works at the Open University, part of the brief is bringing an end to incorporation.
Announcing the plans, Mr Andrews was careful to praise colleges for their performance. He said: "They have supported skills development, broadened curriculum options for young people and offered learning opportunities to a huge range of people of all ages, background and experience.
"They have made a huge contribution to our ambition to improve social justice and enhance the skills base of the Welsh workforce."
But the praise left Colleges Wales wondering what the rationale for such an upheaval was, if they had been doing such a good job under incorporation.
Mr Andrews said the changes were necessary as provision for 14 to 19-year- olds had grown in colleges, and there was a need to balance accountability to business for work-related training against accountability to communities.
Unions reacted with delight to the prospect of ending a policy that was an obstacle to enforcing effective national agreements on pay and conditions. Barry Lovejoy, head of FE at the University and College Union (UCU), said the announcement was a high point for lecturers in Wales, but warned the battle was not won.
Members at the UCU's recent annual congress criticised current governance arrangements across the UK, arguing that governors formed self-selecting cliques that were not accountable to their communities.
Guy Stoate, president of UCU Cymru, said that the new system should put the needs of students, rather than employers, at its heart and give "genuine, democratic accountability" in return for the millions of pounds invested by taxpayers in colleges each year.
It was a view shared by other unions. Philip Dixon, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru, said: "Totally independent corporations simply don't fit in with the Welsh education agenda, which is based on collaboration and co-operation."
But Sylvia Davies, communications director for Colleges Wales, put it the other way around: since colleges are already co-operating successfully in Wales, what problem is the Government intending to solve?
She rejected the charge that college governors were unaccountable. "We are accountable to government for all sorts of things - there's a huge list. Plaid Cymru, and I guess Labour, have got an issue with incorporation being a Tory legacy."
Ms Davies said the minister had assured them that the review would not be a retrograde step: he has ruled out a return to local authority control. "If it was a choice between local authority and how we are now, we'd choose the status quo," she said.
But Mr Andrews has asked the review to look at "social enterprise" and co- operation to "enable the further education sector to continue to meet the needs of citizens and key stakeholders".
In his manifesto for the leadership of Welsh Labour, first minister Carwyn Jones promised: "Ending incorporation of FE colleges, with reforms to governance structures to give proper representation to staff, students and communities and an all-Wales contract for FE lecturers."
The most significant change might prove to be the last in that list: the intention to bind colleges to a single, nationally-negotiated contract which is also a long-standing demand of the unions in Scotland.
The diverging paths of Wales and England offer some prospect of settling the question of whether incorporation was a step forward or back. If colleges on one side of the border start to out-perform their neighbours, the answer may become obvious.