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What you can't buy in the market

Many government policies talk of the need for competition within FE. Along with the market, though, comes central direction of educational institutions. It is far from clear that either is always desirable.

Of course, the Government actually uses the word "contestability".

Essentially, this is competition by another name. How could it be otherwise, when contestability means that different bodies - not always colleges and not always local - have options to bid to provide services.

Moreover, though there may be an emphasis on quality, it is not always clear how this can be squared with the emphasis on value for money. In the marketplace, some colleges will win, but at the expense of others. That is the nature of competition, sorry, contestability. Either way, competition is not obviously good for the sector as a whole.

However, the idea that colleges can be taken over by another agency - remarkably similar to the use of trusts in the school sector - seems to have provoked less antagonism than it has in schools.

Realistically, there are some advantages in colleges developing specialisms. In that sense, the development of colleges with centre of vocational excellence status may be worthwhile.

In addition, though, there remains the problem that most colleges will need to provide very similar general provision.

The principle of the market clearly works less well in practice. It is fine for engineering firms who can produce different kinds of widgets, but colleges don't produce widgets. And that is probably a good thing: educational institutions would probably be bad at producing widgets; they produce qualified and certified students.

For all that the Government seems to want to efface the division between education and the world of business, this is not realistic and does little to help either education or business.

As Julian Gravatt, finance director of the Association of Colleges, has noted, the Government white paper Raising Skills, Improving Life Chances focuses more on performance indicators and intervention than competition.

He reminds us of commentators who argue that the whole emphasis on the free market is only possible in the context of strong state direction. And we do have strong state direction. Furthermore, this tendency has been increased by the long periods of Conservative and Labour administrations.

There are several areas in which centralised control and competition, otherwise known as the quasi-market need to be challenged.

First, there needs to be a space for educating older adults. There are benefits in improved health and community contribution of older students (including those of pensionable age, many of whom still make a contribution, often in a caring role that otherwise would be very costly to the state).

Even ignoring this, in strictly economic terms, educating adults makes sense. Employers recognise not only that there is value in employing older people but that there will not be enough young people - trained or not - to fill vacancies in coming years. So, educating adults is vital.

Second, the division of courses into those that are vocational - and therefore merit recognition and funding - and non-vocational is largely spurious. It is an adage in adult education that one person's leisure is another's vocation. Moreover, students who take courses for leisure may find it has a vocational outlet in due course. Who knows, they may even return to adult education as teachers of the subject they studied.

Third, all courses should be funded for all students. This may not mean fully funded for all students; after all, some students need more financial help than others. However, there are established mechanisms within adult education for reduced fees for those in need. Any further attempt to target payments, mean that some students will fall between the gaps - this is the way with all means-tested approaches.

Furthermore, the essence of the knowledge economy is that all need to advance their skills; there is no suggestion that those above certain incomes do not need to. So, the significant costs of many courses are not acceptable. Learning should be available and affordable for all.

Fourth, the Government attempt to merge education and business on educational terrain is unhelpful; it is in the interests of neither. For instance, it is not obvious that many employers want to play a massive role in directing training, let alone actually delivering it in colleges.

There are few instances when it is in the interests of firms to send employees away from work to the local, or even regional college to teach.

It may be time for education and business to work together to challenge aspects of the quasi-market rooted in state direction.

Graham Fowler is a writer, researcher and consultant in FE

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