From education to employment

Panel session at the Association of Colleges annual conference

A Conservative government would “open the doors to privatisation” and be a disaster for further education, a union has warned.

Speaking at the Association of Colleges annual conference in Birmingham earlier this week, National Union of Students (NUS) President Gemma Tumelty clearly spelled out her fears as part of a panel debate.

“Colleges are in the main, publicly funded – I would argue against private enterprise running colleges,” she said.

Praising the government for investing record levels of funding in further education, she continued: “A Tory changeover would lead to a survival of the fittest-style sector and would open the doors to privatisation. I believe a change of government would be a disaster for FE” she said.

Her comments were part of a panel debate held before principals and college delegates.

Paul Mackney, Joint General Secretary, University and College Union (UCU) noted: “You destroy the public service ethic at great cost”.

Steve Broomhead, Chief Executive of the Northwest Development Agency (NWDA), said: “It’s a very big issue. The Learning and Skills Council (LSC) and government would have to have very rigorous vetting processes. Corporate structures would have to be wedded to the values that exist in the community where those colleges exist”.

And in response to the issue of whether colleges will get smaller, Chris Banks, Chair of the LSC, reiterated Alan Johnson’s comment in his keynote address that 70% of the workforce of 2020 completed their education in the 70s, 80s and 90s when “school attainment was poor”: “The total amount of learning has got to increase,” he said. “The question is who is going to do the providing and the paying? We are all going to have to continue to raise our game to provide what the market place needs”.

Paul Mackney added: “I don”t think [colleges] should get smaller, but I think they should appear to be smaller; more personal and immediate to the student”.

In response to recent criticism, including the Confederation of British Industry’s (CBI) slam that the government’s “alphabet soup” of quangos and colleges was failing to produce skilled workers, the panellists were asked which of the 529 quangos they thought should go. Mr Mackney agreed that the system “needs to be replaced,” while Mr Banks added: “I have an interest in simplification. The LSC has done a huge amount to streamline its own activities”.

And in related news, colleges need to consider “the extent to which we as a nation produce our own food “¦ and the use of bio fuels,” according to a Land Colleges representative, speaking at the conference on Tuesday. “Our colleges need to be engaging themselves in these activities and changing the curriculum,” he said.

Representatives from several Land Colleges in the UK, including Reaseheath College, Plumpton College, Bishop Burton college, Sparsholt College and Duchy College discussed ways in which commercial enterprises can be used as the basis for teaching and provide a link with employers. “2007-8 will be the year of food and farming,” said a representative, “which is a significant development for our sector”.

Annabel Hardy.

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