From education to employment

A view from the hood

For the first time in my professional career, there is consensus across the further education sector. Management, unions and academics all agree: FE is nearing tipping point. Although times of economic uncertainty call for growth in investment in education and training, public funding for adult education is predicted to end within five years.

For some, the FE funding crisis is the result of indifference; a cabinet of millionaires neither understands nor cares about adult learning or FE colleges. Why should they? Most progressed their privileged way through public school and Oxbridge. Yet, FE’s architects were often no less privileged, notably Rab Butler, Marlborough and Cambridge educated.

It is worthwhile stopping to consider the gap between policy now and Butler’s view of adult learning. The 1943 white paper Educational Reconstruction, for which he was responsible, argued that: ‘Without provision for adult education the national system must be incomplete.’ Educational Reconstruction not only recognised the need for vocational training but also the value of liberal education and the contribution of adult learning to democratic citizenship. Importantly, it claimed that a range of provision was necessary ‘to meet the diversity of interests that ask to be catered for, and to bring into being a truly democratic system of public education‘. So what has changed?

The ideology has. Neo-liberalism has ripped the heart out of the very idea of public education. Funding cuts are grounded in a belief that further education is a cost that should be subject to market controls or for which individuals should be responsible. With austerity, this belief has become a dogma.

Yet, the ground for the funding crisis in FE was already laid down, with the support of sector management. When incorporation removed colleges from local control in 1993, FE ‘leaders’ welcomed the autonomy it promised. They did so again in 2012 when colleges were reclassified as private sector bodies. With funding cuts threatening not the independence but the very existence of colleges, chickens, home and roost come to mind.

In Nottingham, UCU activists have long been raising the effects of incorporation. We have highlighted the lack of coherence and collaboration in the planning of provision, as colleges have competed with each other, and with private providers, colleges from outside, and new Academy sixth forms. We have stressed the democratic deficit, the lack of accountability in local FE decision-making to teachers, students and communities.

What happens when colleges lack accountability is illustrated by as FE Commissioner recent report into the near financial collapse of one of the two remaining Nottingham FE colleges. Published in February, the report speaks of unnecessary deficits, poor risk analysis and financial controls, and money wasted on peripheral projects. In particular, it cites a huge rebuilding programme undertaken without adequate capital resources and a corporation led on by enthusiasm of the college executive rather than attending to its responsibilities for careful budgetary oversight. Yet, before the financial crisis at the college was publicly admitted, teachers knew that things were wrong. There was deep concern over money invested in Gazelle and in provision in India. There was unease also with a vision that talked of Excellence, Enterprise and Employability but not of Education. The lack of mechanisms ensuring transparency and accountability meant that executive decisions were not subject to public or teacher scrutiny.

Rightly, the report pointed out that FE colleges have a crucial role in revitalising a city in need of regeneration. Indeed, Nottingham has one of the highest rates of deprivation in the UK; educational achievement rates are amongst the lowest; and its demographics are increasingly diverse. The report concluded that ‘a more radical long term solution for the city’ was required.

Yet, the radical solution proposed was not to bring FE back under some kind of public democratic control, or to create structures to enable students, teachers and local communities to shape the education they need, as citizens should. The proposal is simply a merger of the two existing colleges, neither radical nor unpredicted. Mergers, the FE Commissioner has recently argued, are an economic necessity, a means of cutting costs.

Rob Peutrell is an ESOL teacher and UCU activist in Nottingham. He is a founder member of Tutors’ Voices

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