There are problems, or so I am told, in being rich, especially if you suddenly discover that you no longer have as much money as you thought you had. Having being used to everything, where do you start to cut back? Less champagne? Unthinkable. Stalls at the theatre rather than a box? What’s the point of going if you are not going to be seen? And so the heating gets turned down and there are less fresh vegetables on the dinner menu.
There is a danger that this could happen to the Further Education sector at the present time. Everyone knows we are in a recession – ostensibly the worse for almost a century – and every government department has been told that it has to make its sacrifices.
In the case of DIUS, it’s somewhere in the region of £400m. What we have to ensure is that in the rush to cut back it’s the luxuries that we look at first and most importantly, we don’t damage the essentials – the teaching, and learning support that we give to our students.
Luckily there is plenty to go at. A recent survey of college principals came up with a list of fifty opportunities for savings, none of which would really be noticed by students or staff if they were implemented. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the quangos that have grown like tropical fruit in the fertile ground of a buoyant economy were near the top. Easy pickings, perhaps, but as a Principal when I look at what the majority have done for me or my college, the answer is quite simply "diddily squat".
I’m not sure how much I’ve benefited either from the armies of auditors that have descended upon me with seemingly increasing frequency and almost total irrelevance. Last week it was discovered that one of our managers had forgotten to sign a form –a heinous crime, which sent the whole team into paroxysms alternately of horror and delight at having found something to criticise. A whole bureaucracy has been built around the basic premise that you can’t trust anybody to do anything anymore – a view of human nature which I for one don’t share and which is not only uncomfortable to deal with but very expensive to support.
High up on the list also were all those bodies that make money out of the sector, headed by the examination bodies whose costs seem to rise each year in inverse proportion to the services that they offer. Edexcel, AQA and their colleagues are fast becoming the FE equivalent of estate agents in their popularity. Then of course there were the known nonsenses – small and uneconomic sixth forms that need to be closed and brought into a tertiary framework, learndirect and needless to say brokers and the brokerage system.
But way out in front and heading the list not surprisingly were the operational arms of the government itself. As more than one principal asked "Does it really take 3300 bureaucrats to run the LSC (or the YPLA, NAS and SFA if we are talking in new money)?" And what about the civil servants working on such wonderful ideas as the Framework for Excellence, or dare I say it, the new Diplomas – both well in the Principals’ firing line? The general consensus was that Gordon Brown and his team could save a small fortune if they simply cut out new initiatives, at least until the economy improves, and let the professionals get on with it. Less government might indeed be better government.
It was recognised of course that colleges should not be exempt themselves from trying to do more with less and the principals recognised that there were great opportunities for savings in areas such as shared services and central procurement. What they all agreed must not happen, however, was for there to be a reduction in the resources that colleges receive to do their basic job or an expectation that lecturing staff, already paid less than teachers, should be expected to do more for the same amount of money. At present we have the finest college system in the world and there is no real reason even at times such as these that we should not be able to maintain that position. Moreover if we end up with less waste, less bureaucracy and less interference maybe not being rich won’t be so bad after all.
Dr David Collins CBE is the President of the Association of Colleges (AoC)
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