It was as I sat drinking coffee, high in the "groves above academe", that I first realized that Cape Town can teach us much about the solution to FEs current woes.

Let me go back to the beginning and relate the story chronologically. I've just spent a month in South Africa. An hour before drinking this particular coffee I'd been at the main Cape Town University campus. It's located high above Cape Town and is the most beautiful university locations I know.

Now I was further up the mountain, on the Groote Schuur estate, high above UCT, where the granite Rhodes Memorial sits like a brooding Corinthian temple to Cecil Rhodes. Interestingly the students at the university below have no interest in campaigning for this monument to be removed. It's only at UK universities I see Rhodes being pilloried!

From this hillside the view is of the Mother City of Cape Town, from far inland across the city to the Waterfront and beyond to Mandela’s Robben Island. Cape Town, the place of sweet water or //Hui !Gaeb in the Khoisan tongue

CT, as the locals refer to it, is a wonderful place. Post-apartheid it is vibrant and, like the rest of Africa, almost addictive. But it is not without its problems. It's a city of extremes. Poverty and wealth sit side by side. But what brings the people of all colours, religions and employment status together is water.

Or rather the lack of water

CT has experienced great drought in recent years. The years of sweet water could be numbered. Last year when I was here the reservoirs were down to the 32% after two years where the winter rains failed to materialise. The last 13% of water in the reservoirs isn't usable simply because it's sludge and definitely not sweet.  

Today the reservoirs stand at 73%. But the people of CT haven't relaxed the strict water rationing that has been so necessary to survive. “5b” restrictions, as they are encoded in local water regulations, means everyone is restricted to 70 litres of water a day. That's for drinking, cooking, washing, cleaning and flushing. Flushing once a day can use up a large proportion of your daily allocation and when you shower you stand in a bowl and use the waste water for flushing.

Showering is a matter of turning on the shower for ten seconds to soak the skin, then turning it off whilst soaping down, then a quick flush to rinse the soap off. I'm not sure how this is policed... Perhaps someone can enlighten me. But people seem to stick to it and overall usage around 70 litres a day as per the regulations.

What is common to see is people washing in the sea. Not swimming ... Washing! Walking into the sea with a bar of soap and lathering liberally.

But what has this to do with FE’s woes I hear you say

Saving Water and FE

The FE news for me over the last few weeks have been via email, articles here on FE News and more than one desperate phone call.

I see a sector in shock. Some people appear to be in denial whilst others revel in the demise of individuals.  

This is a time when being able to stand outside and be objective is a Godsend. From high up in the hills of academe above UCT it's possible to reflect in a way not possible when firefighting at a college in the UK. Because it's not just the 7-8 colleges, that have seen their principals suddenly leave in the last few weeks, that are under pressure.

I've also seen principals I highly respect clearly dazed by what is going on in the sector. Some have decried the demise of fellow principals saying we all make mistakes and they should be given a second chance.

True, education is the second chance that many of us have used to great advantage. My reason for being in FE is that I believe everyone deserves a chance in life and I know FE is the answer for many.

But is that the same as a principal making a mistake and being given another chance?

In CT, if they had made mistakes with water rationing, a second chance would not have been possible. People would die of thirst.

Once the water runs out in a city of millions of people you can't have a second chance. You have to get to right first time.

Clearly the errors we make whilst employed vary in magnitude, but some are of a magnitude that precludes a second chance. And serial failures, especially where highlighted issues have repeatedly been ignored by a principal, are a definite red flag.

What Woes is FE Suffering?

I constantly hear that FE is underfunded. This cry has been constant since the 2008 recession and even before.

I've often written that it isn't underfunded, but FE is using its money in the wrong way. In CT the people had limited money to spend on fighting the drought. Spending loads on new reservoirs, when there was a drought and construction would take years, was a non-runner. Simple things helped a lot though.

For a few rand you can buy a bottle of water in the supermarket. When the majority of people started buying bottled drinking water it reduced the pressure on the reservoirs. When car washing, and watering flower beds become illegal things improved further.

Some people installed quite expensive grey water recycling units. In the townships, where standpipes are the norm, no one considered this at all. And don't confuse living in tin shack with poverty. Most of the people I meet that live in townships own cars and satellite TV, but don't have running water in their homes.

An alternative to grey water recycling was the water butt. It still rains a bit in CT, just not enough in the hills around the reservoirs which are 75 km inland. A water butt can give you enough water for a week when you get a 20-minute downpour. And on the coast don't ignore the fogs that come in off the Atlantic. Up the coast in Namibia whole ecosystems survive on the moisture from fog. In CT I've seen downpipes with a steady drip, drip, drip of water when there's a good fog. Small volumes of water caught in inexpensive water butts make a huge difference if everyone catches water this way.

What this means for FE is that we need to spend wisely and employ technologies and tactics we hadn't previously considered. Sometimes, like catching fog in a bucket, we can use very simple tactics.

We also have to work as a community. I see many colleges in the UK attempting curriculum innovation. But working together to do this is less common, and where it is happening is often prompted by external/commercial bodies.

There is an opportunity for the AOC to take a greater lead in this. But that means that member colleges have to nudge them in the right direction. It might take a bit nudge!

Getting a few thousand people marching in London and asking government for more money is never going to work. The Sir Humphrey’s and MPs know that offering a few million here and there has been enough to quell disquiet in the past and continue to do so with T levels whilst destroying apprenticeships with their actions.

The recent FE funding petition didn’t attract very many signatures. If people on the fringe of FE, like myself, were prepared to sign why didn’t more than half of FE staff? It’s a sad indictment of FE that so many are so apathetic.

FE Needs to Plan Better

A few days ago, I read an article that suggested that one college principal had neglected to produce business, curriculum, estate and other plans. This didn't surprise me as, sad to say, FE doesn't always grasp planning essentials. Come to that nor does HE. I recall one university where, when I asked for the agenda and minutes from a regular meeting, I was told they didn't have any. This was in the business school of a major UK university that was undertaking a £multimillion curriculum change that no university had previously attempted.

If they tried to manage without plans or minutes how can we expect FE to do better?

However lax the university was it doesn't excuse an FE college

I recently spent some time comparing notes with a contemporary. Both of us had reams of examples of colleges that hadn't produced business, curriculum, estate and other plans when they had called us in.

If you don't know where you are going, you'll never know anything about your journey. How long it will take, the stopping off points along the way, what it will cost and your planned arrival date.

Part of the problem is that too few people in FE understand planning. They don't know the difference between a strategy, a plan and tactics. The number of times I've been shown “strategies” that are actually reams of badly cobbled together research or wish lists. My first job is often to ascertain the objective and then produce the actual strategy. (Defining the objective is often another challenge).

Strategies are overarching, not detailed. I can often reduce a hundred-page strategy, that no one has ever bothered to read, down to a single side of A4 that people can read and understand.

It doesn't matter whether the strategy is for finance, curriculum, estates or whatever .... it can be reduced to a handful of words.

One college had reams of info as part of their estates strategy. It took me a whole day to read it, its appendices and supporting docs. What it really said was that they were going to build a new block and would finance it from the sale of a barely used city centre site. You don't need 200 pages to say that. Their strategy could be written in one sentence. The rest of the bumph may be necessary, but they are not a strategy.

So, where a college fails to produce strategies that are simple enough that a six-year-old can understand them I fear the worse.

Of course, we then need plans and other documents. In the rebuild strategy above I then wanted to see the building plans, the finance plan and a lot more besides. But before that I want to see the curriculum plan that makes the building necessary.

Unless we have a curriculum, plan detailing the courses, levels etc. how do we know if we need a new building. It's not enough to say we are building a new engineering block without having to a detailed idea of what will be offered in it. It's seems incredible but so frequently I get very vague feedback on this essential. Principals tell me I need to speak to the head of engineering ... They don't seem to have dug into what they've been told with any rigour and determination.

Likewise, I get vacant stares when I ask to see the gross margin analysis of each curriculum area and course. Most colleges have only the vaguest idea of what courses cost to run. They rely on funding weighting data produced by outsiders. They have no idea how things like the preponderance of younger/older staff and their relative salaries impact the profit or loss characteristics of particular areas or courses.

In CT thy know how much water is used by every home and business. If colleges had the same data on their offer, they could identify problem areas and find answers.

Financial strategies and plans need to be detailed if they are to be of use. Colleges have this data but rarely bring it together, with curriculum, estates and other plans, so that they can plan effectively. Does your college have robust plans?

About Stefan DrewStefan was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and for over a decade has consulted with colleges, universities and private providers throughout the UK, Europe, Africa and the US. Connect with Stefan on LinkedIn  

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