From education to employment

Collaboration or Competition And The Future of Further Education

Martin Doel, FETL Professor of Leadership in FE and Skills, University College London, Institute of Education

Dilemma No 1: Collaboration or Competition #FutureofFE

In the first of the articles leading up to my forthcoming lecture The Future of Further Education, I argued that future predictions were almost bound to fail, particularly if they were overly specific.

Instead I argued that it might be better to consider the way ahead by looking at a series of dilemmas that further education seems likely to face over the next decade.

The first of these dilemmas is whether the primary mode of behaviour for further education providers should be to compete, or to collaborate.

Market Forces and the 1992 Education Act

The tendency to see competition as the primary way of behaving between further education providers and between them and other education providers (i.e. schools and universities) is closely related to the characterisation of the sector being a market.

Indeed many academic critiques of the sector start from this presumption, many of them making reference to neoliberal tendencies and proclivities in an ill-defined way.

Such studies normally associate the move to competition as the means by which further education system is operated, to the 1992 Education Act. The designation of colleges as incorporated bodies under the Act promised greater autonomy and potential for self-governance. At the same time, a market was created in further education between colleges, independent training providers, local authority providers, schools and universities.

In this context, policymakers assumed that greater competition would drive improvement both efficiencies and quality.

Reticence and Mutual Suspicion

As people like Ken Spours and Ewart Keep have pointed out, the market in further education was never as pure as some critiques presumed; in fact, to use Ewart’s term, the markets was in fact more a series of quasi-markets with fluctuating, but nonetheless ever present, intervention and oversight by government agencies like the Learning and Skills Council (LSC). Also, as Bill Bailey demonstrated, market forces weren’t entirely new in 1992, there having been a good deal of competition between providers pre-incorporation, particularly in urban areas.

It is however true to say, I think, that the predominant mode of behaviour between providers since 1992 has been competitive. Such behaviour has been necessary in order to secure student numbers, funding grants and agency support.

Though collaborative projects and activities have continued, they have often been carried out with a high degree of reticence and a tendency to mutual suspicion. But things may be changing at both a macro level beyond further education, and within the Sector.

Redressing the Imbalance of ‘Left-behind Places’

At the macro level, the rhetoric around ‘left-behind places’ and the need redress imbalances, reveals a more than tacit acceptance across the political spectrum that a market ‘red in tooth and claw’ will not be self-levelling with a ‘trickle-down effect’ to all parts of the nation.

This assessment draws upon the work of writers such as Haskel and Westlake, Collier and Mazzucato. Each in their different way, foresee a more interventionist role for government in regulating and shaping the market. But none see an imminent return to a command-led economy, not least because of the complex and fast-moving nature of a modern economy shaped by global, as well as local factors.

The Industrial Strategy published by the previous Government is, in many ways, a practical manifestation of this thinking with its opportunity areas and emphasis upon local growth.

How does this type of thinking manifest itself in further education?

Consider two recent policy events:

  1. Area based-reviews, and
  2. The apprenticeship levy

Area based-reviews

In the case of the former, classic free-market economics would have seen poorly performing colleges left to fail, and to disappear from the market, with other providers taking up the slack, or taking them over.

Faced, however, with the prospect of large holes in the fabric of further education provision, and particularly that provision aimed at lower achieving, or harder to reach students, often in disadvantaged communities, Government chose to intervene with area-based reviews.

Significantly, though, the recommendations of the reviews were incentivised via a restructuring fund, rather than directed in an entirely top-down way.

The Apprenticeship Levy

So far as the apprenticeship levy is concerned, taking money off employers and giving it back to them under the condition that they use if for purposes determined by State is hardly consistent with Milton Friedman’s dictums.

That said the levy, like area-based reviews, has not gone the whole way toward a directed system; there is a still a market between providers, and employers determine which apprenticeship standards they procure.

Post-market Approach

In both cases, market and non-market approaches are being employed, something that I have called a post-market approach. The market in further education and in the economy more generally will not disappear entirely and we will not return to the supposed halcyon days of pre-incorporation. Instead, we will move forward to a more consciously mixed model.

In that more mixed model, the balance between competition and collaboration in further education is likely to shift, but competition will not be removed altogether; the pre-condition for the removal of competition would be close top-down direction which, in a mirror of macro trends, is a poor fit for a modern economy, the more so if student choice is to be maintained.

If not by top down direction, how then is a mix of competition and collaboration to be achieved?

Martin Doel, FETL Professor of Leadership in FE and Skills, University College London, Institute of Education

This is what I will explore in the lecture or, to refer to the lecture’s somewhat pretentious title, the dialectical synthesis that we need to work toward.

As a taster in regard, I think that the following 5 propositions regarding collaboration might be a good starting point:

  1. Collaboration is easiest when funds are plentiful but is most necessary when funds are scarcest.
  2. Collaboration needs focus (and / or an external threat) to engender commitment.
  3. Collaboration is most likely between partners with differentiated functions, or where overlaps are well understood.
  4. Collaboration prospers in conditions of trust and reciprocity.
  5. Collaboration in complex systems is best incentivized rather than directed.

Should you be interested in attending the lecture (20 Feb) bookings can be made here.

Find out more about the ideas behind Martin’s lecture by reading his #FutureofFE mini-series here:

  1. Defining the Future of Further Education
  2. Collaboration or Competition?
  3. National or Local?


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