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Unite and take onthe danger within

COLLEGES NEED to present a united front to avert the worst excesses that may be imposed on them. Yet 25 of the largest FE colleges have launched themselves as the 157 Group, named uncreatively after the paragraph of the Foster report that suggests big colleges should work with the Department for Education and Skills.

The principle matters far more than the name. One consequence may be that, instead of having one Association of Colleges, we have a grouping - perhaps renamed Big Colleges with Sway (BigCowS). If only in response, other colleges would need at least one group with a marketing tag: Local Colleges at your Service (LoCo* S) perhaps.

In seeking to establish a separate identity, the BigCowS of the 157 Group are acting in line with government emphasis upon contestation, quality marks and increased competition. These 25 colleges together account for one in six of all FE students.

The 157Group has noticed that even charging higher entrance fees than the AoC will leave it with a relatively small kitty to lobby for its interests.

So it is considering allowing other colleges to join it.

But it is important that college leaders decline the offer and don't join the renegades.

The BigCowS are a danger within. They threaten to make government policy into reality against the interests of the sector as a whole. Why else have both Alan Johnson and Bill Rammell been falling over themselves to praise the initiative?

Of course, colleges should not be uniform. They have to meet the requirements of the local economy, for instance. And some specialisation, such as that which Centres of Vocational Excellence status provides, is helpful.

This, though, does not mean that they should mirror the university sector.

There, different bodies argue for elite universities; the remaining pre-1992 universities; and universities and colleges turned into universities in 1992.

But universities have an established hierarchy, and they fulfil different functions. Some are well known nationally, whereas others cater primarily for regional students. A small number are big players on an international stage.

This elite group needs significant additional research income to survive in that international environment. In contrast, colleges are relatively free from hierarchy. With rare exceptions, such as the National Construction College in Norfolk, they do not have a particular national role, let alone an international position to defend and do not need advocates to represent diverse interests, as universities do.

A united college sector has the potential to meet the needs of all students and communities even against a government that has its eyes on changing the political landscape in which colleges work. In this context, developing different groupings - especially one that earmarks the strong and differentiates them from the weak - is amongst the least desirable approaches imaginable.

Graham Fowler is a writer, researcher and consultant in FE

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