From education to employment

LSIS CEO on getting more for less

As the clouds of the Comprehensive Spending Review begin to gather on the horizon there can be few in the Learning and Skills Sector that are not beginning to batten down the hatches and prepare for some very stormy weather ahead. For those in colleges, the beginning of a new academic year is a real opportunity to look long and hard at their underlying cost structures and begin to make the cuts that are going to be inevitable in the days to come.

Over the past ten years or so, there can be little doubt that efficiency gains have been made but there is still a way to go before the majority can truly claim to be “lean and mean”.  A glance at any series of OFSTED reports, for example,  will reveal average class sizes still in the region of 12-14 while figures from the Skills Funding Agency, show that staff costs remain stubbornly around 65% of total budget for most GFEs (and significantly higher for sixth form colleges) and space utilisation, depending how you count, below 50% for many.

For those colleges facing a budget problem in the coming year, swift and decisive action is necessary. Firstly there needs to an honest acceptance that it is highly unlikely that the problem can be “grown out of” or solved by increasing income. This rarely, if ever, turns out to be the case. The only sensible way forward is to cut costs and that means a lot more than turning down the thermostat by a degree or two or printing on both sides of a piece of paper.

The real opportunities are in rationalising the curriculum and avoiding duplication. This is difficult and unpopular within an institution but for real savings to be made a wider perspective on what is available in an area needs to be undertaken.  And there’s the rub. Everyone knows that there is real money to be saved by dealing with the uneconomic sixth forms that have grown up in schools – although politically no one seems prepared to tackle the issue. So why should a college take the lead, when it’s already probably one of the more efficient educational establishments in its area?

The answer is probably self preservation.  With falling budgets, it’s unfortunately a case of gritting the teeth and getting on with it. Reducing choice if needs be, combining groups or parts of groups, substituting a degree of technology for some face to face activity and aiming for class sizes of 18 or 20 as the norm, confident in the knowledge that research shows that learners tend to perform better in larger groups.

The second key area is in changing the staff mix. Very few institutions have calculated how much non contact time is needed to support an hour “in the classroom” and the obsession of funding bodies and others with statistics and audit means that in many colleges administrative support staff have mushroomed. Perhaps we have got to the point where we will have to distinguish clearly between “must haves” and “nice to haves”.  Similarly the use of assessors, trainers and lecturers whose salaries are based on what they could command in the private market may need to be considered. Can we, for example, sustain a system that pays someone with the levels of qualifications and experience necessary to teach level 3 and 4 in law or accountancy, the same as a lecturer teaching levels 1 and 2 in catering or hairdressing?  And do we really need the numbers of lecturers, as compared to trainers or assessors we have, to deliver the learning experiences and successes that our students require? It’s not a comfortable problem to deal with but maybe now’s the time?

And thirdly there is the question of the estate. For the lucky few new builds are the order of the day, but for many caught up in the capital crisis the time has come for a revaluation of what is realistically possible, and practically desirable, in the new budgetary situation. It certainly doesn’t make sense to own large amounts of (relatively) unoccupied, poor quality space.  If anything it makes sense to utilise fully the best space and rent out, mothball or sell the rest.

That leaves shared services, possible mergers and new institutional relationships as possible ways towards a more efficient sector, although whether colleges have the energy and skills to take these on board at the same time as all the other challenges that they are facing is an open question. There is no doubt that the sector will begin to take on a very different shape once the implications of the CSR and the budget deficit begin to work their way through but action is really needed now. For today’s senior management teams it could be a very busy summer.

David Collins is chief executive of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS)


Read other FE News articles by David Collins:

LSIS CEO David Collins: Rumours of our death are greatly exaggerated

The new LSIS

For richer, for poorer

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