Henry Cowper says colleges should be a crucial area of debate for a Scots parliament
Shortly after the election an esteemed colleague who had received most of his formal education in the further education sector and who had given it almost 40 years of distinguished service sounded an uncharacteristically sour note. He could summon up little euphoria for the change of government. As far as FE was concerned, he predicted that finance would be every bit as hard to fight for as under the old administration.
The recent announcement by Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, that there will be a review of college funding holds out some hope but we will have to see what the mountain brings forth, as well as what the Dearing report says shortly. Mr Wilson reiterated his commitment to lifelong learning. People of all ages and talents should be encouraged to enhance their existing skills and develop new ones. Sound policy, but does it take us any further? Are there any real changes in view for FE?
Four years into incorporation the management of FE colleges, if not a majority of staff, have no doubt it was "a good thing". Onwards and upwards as the rhetoric would have it. But one is painfully aware of the extent of the financial difficulties in some colleges and the resultant threat of redundancies and charges of mismanagement. The 1996 official report on FE in Scotland in all its glossy splendour makes much of the fact that things can only get better and points to 60 per cent efficiency gains and the 9 per cent increase in student activity achieved in the 1995 session. No mention is made of the seeping discontent which has penetrated some colleges in the past two years.
True, Scottish FE is in a healthier state than its counterpart south of the border where there have been spectacular cases of gross mismanagement and inefficiency and where management styles have been criticised for being impetuous, arbitrary and abrasive. The received wisdom in 1992 was that the colleges had been held back by local authorities. The greatest area of opportunity in post-16 education lay with FE. Allow market forces to prevail, give a modicum of independence and a thousand flowers would bloom leading to increased participation rates (education-speak for bums on seats). As Oscar Wilde noted: "Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes."
The 1995 study into the operation of college boards of management revealed some disconcerting facts. Far from being the "self-perpetuating oligarchs" of which some have been accused, most members confessed to a lack of knowledge about how FE actually worked and its precise role within the educational system. Indeed respondents to a questionnaire stated that a better understanding was essential to their personal development needs.
I have sat through a number of meetings where board members looked puzzled over Byzantine explanations, bureaucratic waffle and educational sludge-speak. For quite a few, including myself, some reports would have been more comprehensible written in Arabic or Albanian.
However, it is the issue of funding that causes the greatest concern to those members who have had experience of the financial sector. I for one welcome their participation in college affairs. Even if they struggle in the educational maze they are better qualified to read a balance sheet. They are appalled by the way in which the colleges are funded and realise that year-to-year allocations based on a dubious rationale can only give rise to indecision and confusion. All the strategic plans, development plans and mission statements make little sense when the chips are down.
At a recent board of management workshop to discuss change at Stevenson College over the next decade it was remarked that the speed of developments was likely to accelerate over the next five years. Some board members were less than enthusiastic about always having to respond to events. What exists in FE, they felt, is a culture forcing the college into instant response to the latest educational fad and thence invariably to needless competition with other institutions. Much better to go for a balance between quality and growth and to invest in a much higher training standard for academic and support staff.
One or two were sceptical about the role of educational technology and the emphasis placed on the Internet. What was wrong with well-stocked libraries where students could read books? In fact there was no shortage of ideas from board members. All, however, bemoaned the funding mechanism because of the constraints it placed on genuine planning. There was criticism of the proliferation of new universities and strong arguments for the role of FE in post-school education.
Over the past decade the FE sector has played an important part in widening access to higher education and colleges are expected to play an increasingly important role in reaching ever more non-traditional applicants - mature students, part-time students and those who are first-generation entrants to continuing education. This is one of the greatest strengths of the FE colleges but too much emphasis on consumerism and the need to attract students merely to bump up numbers makes little educational sense.
What many colleges should be concerned with is not the number of students they pack in every year but the reasons why so many of them fail to complete the courses on which they embarked. Financial, educational and pastoral support needs to be looked at more closely since the drop-out rate in FE is beginning to reach extremely high proportions.
Colleges depend on Scottish Office funding and despite the private finance initiative this is likely to be the major source of aid in the foreseeable future, especially to meet capital costs. Since incorporation, ministers have been at pains to state that FE is no longer a Cinderella service, but a tour round one of the newer universities and the local FE college will readily reveal the imbalance of resources. Surely if and when a joint higher and further education funding council is established, it will have to divide its money in a fairer manner. Likewise a Scottish parliament with tax-raising powers should consider post-school education as a crucial area of debate.
Like most people in further education, I feel that the current system has severe shortcomings and needs urgent revision. The outcome of the Scottish Office's review of funding is awaited with a sense of anticipation - but without undue confidence that it will tackle deep-seated problems.
Henry Cowper is a member of the board of management of Stevenson College, Edinburgh.