From education to employment

The challenge of Governance in FE: Are standalone FE Colleges the Future?

Dr Peter Hill, Co-founder and Partner, Hügel Learning LLP

When I was appointed as a Governor at Bracknell & Wokingham College in 2017 I knew there would be somewhat of a learning curve involved.

However, as an experienced Academic who has spent most of his career teaching and researching in Business Schools I believed that there was no challenge which could not be solved with a bit of research and good old-fashioned thinking. How wrong I was!

Changing landscapes

Since I began working in education in 2006 so much has changed.

The introduction of higher tuition fees, the consequent cut in teaching grants to Higher Education Institutes (HEIs), as well as other efforts to deregulate what is now an ‘education marketplace’ have led to students increasingly viewing themselves as ‘consumers’ of education rather than recipients and beneficiaries.

This double-edged sword has seen many FE Colleges branch out into HE provision, as well as many ironically-named ‘alternative providers’ of variable quality entering the sector.

At the school level, Academisation has seen a centralisation of financial control towards the Department for Education (away from Local Education Authorities and the communities they serve), alongside further deregulation of the education marketplace.  

Many schools have opened 6th Forms regardless of whether or not local demand exists, diluting catchment areas and undermining many FE colleges across the country. Increasing of the school leaving age to 18 has also driven much of this expansion.

This expansion in 6th form provision raises the important question of whether this has been in the best interests of learners or funders who can no longer enjoy the efficiencies and economies-of-scale found in FE colleges.

Overall this blurring of previously-existing boundaries between provision, and lack of any form of coordination (in the naïve belief that all markets are efficient and self-correcting), is causing real pain across the education sector.

Thanks to changes in insolvency regulations in FE there can now be, and will be, College failures and closures.

Governance at sea

This dramatic and incessant change raises the question of how well-prepared Governors such as myself are to deal with the consequences.

Governors are unpaid lay-people from a wide range of backgrounds. Although we often bring a vast wealth of experience to the role there are often many other demands on these expertise.

As a result, the time we have to devote to the role (which includes but is not limited to attending training events, reading briefing packs, attending Corporation and committee meetings, recruiting new senior staff, visiting link-departments, attending open-evenings, representing and supporting the college) is often limited.

Even with outstanding Senior Management Teams in place, Governors provide the strategic steer and hold managers to account as supportive but critical friends.

Decreasing funding in FE places Colleges between rocks and hard places, and this will push many Governors to simply vote with their feet.

Governors currently give their time freely and generously. Forcing tough, challenging and painful decisions on volunteers is unsustainable. Their contribution is invaluable, but at risk.

The future of FE Governance

There are no easy solutions to the issues identified so far. However, there will be some inevitable changes to Governance we can expect over the next decade:

  • There will be fewer standalone colleges due to mergers, meaning fewer Governors, but increasing workload for those remaining;
  • FE Colleges will continue their expansion into HE provision, further challenging the competencies of Governors; and
  • There will be more partnerships and probably mergers between FE colleges and HEIs, again, stretching the competencies and time of Governors;
  • There will also be more sixth form colleges as schools expand into the FE space.

In an ideal world it would be tempting to hark back to “the good old days”, however, I doubt FE has ever really had such days.

Instead, looking to the future, if FE is to attract and retain the best talent in Governance should we perhaps stop expecting something (actually quite a lot) for nothing?

A Non-Executive Director (NED) of an NHS Trust can expect an allowance of £11-15,000 per year while a NED of a Housing Association can expect about £6,000 per annum.

FE Corporations are increasingly leading organisations on a similar scale, and as the role expands could some kind of salary or allowance to help support Governors to give the time (headspace and learning time) needed to perform at the level now expected of them?

However, given continued pressures on budgets this is unlikely, if ever, to happen.

It is perhaps also important to ask, are standalone FE Colleges the future?

Maybe students will be better served by institutions which cross boundaries and sectors allowing even greater efficiencies, economies of scale and continuity.

Dr Peter Hill, Co-founder and Partner, Hügel Learning LLP

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