Earlier this month the Government set out Waves 3, 4 and 5 for Area Reviews, taking the process through to the end of 2016 and beyond. As more and more devolution deals are struck, Area Reviews are being seized upon as a further string to the localism bow, but how much genuine sway will local issues really have on Area Reviews?
According to the Government's guidance, the first objective of Area Reviews is "to deliver institutions which are financially viable, sustainable, resilient and efficient, and deliver maximum value for public investment". This is an unashamed goal to achieve economies in expenditure and, on face value, has little to do with localism. There is nothing wrong with the principle of removing duplicative cost and consolidating overheads, but if this is what Area Reviews are a code word for, then why not then just call a spade a spade? The rhetoric is clear; there is no part of the country which cannot benefit from consolidation. The "do nothing" option is off the table. Indeed, the Government's "expectation is that the scope for rationalisation and greater efficiencies will lead to fewer, but stronger individual institutions". Nowhere will seemingly escape without mergers and closures.
But each review is also allegedly aimed to assess and respond to the economic and educational needs of the area. This will, we are told, create scope for more effective collaboration and greater specialisation. But, aside from having consolidated back office functions, will post Area Review colleges really be all that different from the institutions which exist today?
In recent years the HE Initial Participation Rate has been constantly above 40%, and close to 50%. For many FE is a stepping stone to university, and for whom short term local labour market need has nominal importance to their tertiary study. Furthermore, the City Growth Commission recommended in 2014 that HE graduates should "extend their roots in their place of study", and many universities brag about how many graduates "stay local" when securing their first job. It would be remiss, of course, not to mention the "boomerang generation" whose only financial option is to move back in with their parents after graduating, returning to the same economy where they went to college or sixth form. Ultimately though, these too move on. And if young people are inherently transient, how genuinely important is the local relevance of what they study in Years 12 and 13? Most young people simply don't have a fixed career trajectory at age 18.
But let's focus on those who complete their academic education at this age. For post Area Review colleges to craft a truly local offer for these learners, it will take a radical step change in thinking. For example, around 100,000 people in the UK work in the Performing Arts sector, of which around 45% are employed in London and the South East. In contrast, since 2009, more than 100,000 young people across the UK have gained an A Level in Drama. You can see the problem. I'm not intentionally singling out Drama; I could equally challenge the relative supply and employer demand for A Levels in History, Expressive Arts, Psychology, Religious Studies, and a host of other subjects. In contrast, Year 12/13 qualification throughput in sectors (or should that be "subjects") which are increasingly cited as local priorities, such as Health & Social Care, Low Carbon, and Advanced Manufacturing, is slim by comparison.
If Area Reviews are to therefore be truly embraced, the resultant institutions need to deliver Year 13 leavers (for those not staying on to HE) who are genuinely skilled for the local labour market. This could, and arguably should, involve a radical rethink of the qualifications and curriculum menu which colleges offer, with increasing emphasis towards vocational subjects and employability skills. At its boldest, this would mean radically downsizing student volumes in traditional (and dare I say popular) subjects which have a low correlating demand within the local labour market. I wonder, is the FE community really ready for that?
Jim Carley is managing director of Carley Consult, a specialist business development agency supporting the skills and employability sectors