The further education sector is facing a period of change as the coalition Government’s policies start to take effect. During many visits to colleges up and down the country, I started to get a feel for the mood of the sector, which I think could be summed up as nervous, if not anxious.
There appears to be widespread under-recruitment of school leavers this academic year and the demise of the EMA appears to be a major contributory factor. It is clear that John Hayes and the Department for Education are aware of rising youth unemployment and it is a cause for real concern, hence the recent announcements of the go-ahead on infrastructure projects and the billion pound Youth Project. The EMA was certainly an effective way to reward students for enrolling and staying on a course, but it is fair to say that the value added benefits are hard to quantify. Eroding the EMA was clearly an easy target for Government cost saving, and I guess that every sector of the economy is having to take the pain of the high budget deficit.
For many colleges, the reduction in the number of 16-19 year olds in the economy is putting additional pressure on colleges to recruit students, making 2011 and 2012 particularly tough to hit recruitment targets. The Government is introducing compulsory education in xxxx for everyone up to the age of 18. This will have a significant impact the number of young people moving into further education. Also, next year’s cohort should be considerably boosted by those young people who may well have gone down the traditional A level and university route, but rather decide to opt for an education that will prepare them for the world of work faster than university. Indeed, apprenticeships also will be seen as an increasingly attractive proposition to many students
The unrestricted development of small sixth forms and the offering of vocational education by schools is making life much more difficult. Conservative free market philosophy is intensifying. In some towns and cities in the United Kingdom, where schools and colleges have raised standards, it has forced neighbouring institutions to raise their own quality levels. The threat of survival caused by popularity of higher performing local education providers, results in the lower performers having to raise their game meaning a higher quality education for our young people. In the private sector, those companies that make great products, like Apple and Jaguar LandRover, are successful and thrive. The quality of education and training alone will not dictate success in the sector, but the effectiveness of marketing will also play a pivotal role in the popularity of colleges. Also, the desire by college leaders to compete aggressively for numbers may undermine the quality of advice and direction given to individual learners.
This Government is placing heavy emphasis on outcomes. The Government believes that for too long, too many courses have provided irrelevant skills. Education has been supply-led rather than demand-led. It is true that our sector needs to lead the way in providing courses and course content that leads to learners being more employable and more productive. Learners too must grasp the relationship between the skills they acquire and the employment outcomes so they can make an informed choice about the course they take and the college they attend. I don’t think anyone can argue that focusing measurement, and ultimately, funding based on outcomes rather than learner numbers makes rational sense, but those outcomes need to be sustainable in the long term.
Government changes to university funding will provide an opportunity for colleges to provide a real alternative. For some young people, the prospect of higher university fees, on top of the expenses of living away from home, is likely to encourage them to want to study higher education courses more locally. This Government has indicated that it is doubling the number of HE places provided by colleges. In some circumstances colleges may be able to accredit their own degrees, rather than rely on partner universities. In addition, apprenticeships should be an attractive proposition for some who may have thought university was the only route for them.
There is much talk of shared services among colleges, but little concrete Government action to make this happen. Grants awarded through the AOC and 157 Group may help, but there are fundamental barriers, not least being the VAT system which disincentivises shared services. Indeed the VAT system is crazy in respect of colleges and needs addressing to enable more shared services and more outsourced services.
Colleges have been free of local government intervention for decades, but successive Governments have sought to micro-manage the sector by using the funding mechanism as an instrument to impose policy. The coalition Government appears to want to give colleges unprecedented freedom. For some, such freedom could be perceived as increased uncertainty and unsettling. For others, they will see this as an opportunity.
In the future colleges will need rigorous product management, aggressive marketing, higher quality and an unrelenting focus on outcomes.
John Wilford, Managing Director, Rave Communications
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