In the run-up to spending announcements which are expected to favour further education, The THES looks at the state of the colleges
Further education has not developed into a cohesive national sector despite the setting-up of national funding and inspection systems after incorporation. Nor has bureaucratic nationalisation forestalled a continuing strategic drift in overall vision.
There was a moment in the early 1990s when it appeared that further education might cease being the "Invisible Man" of education.
The sector was to become the engine for achieving the new qualification targets and a primary vehicle of the new learning society. But the moment soon passed, as competitive and bureaucratic realities blunted the newly empowered institutions' excitement.
Further education faces a crisis of funding and a soul-searching about quality. But beyond this it has a longer term crisis of positioning and identity to face.
Colleges are now overwhelmingly adult institutions, with more than 76 per cent of Further Education Funding Council-funded students over the age of 24. But higher education institutions have also moved decisively into that market with the expansion of foundation, access and other subdegree provision. Financial vulnerability is also undermining the autonomy of many colleges, with some 30 negotiating mergers with universities.
The shape of post-compulsory education and training in England and Wales has always tended to evolve more by accident than design. In the late 1970s it seemed to be being nudged towards becoming the comprehensive provider of 16-19 education. Colleges were large, diverse and flexible community institutions popular among young people wanting to learn in a new environment after reaching school-leaving age.
But the opportunity to create a structure comparable to that dominant in most of the developed world - a dedicated, institutionally distinct high school sector - disappeared with school choice, grant-maintained schools, and college incorporation.
The further education college is increasingly moving into the space occupied by the community college in the United States - an institution mostly serving adults that provides a bridge between schooling and higher education and training.
This scenario is attractive. It would make the college the key institution for developing the learning society. American community colleges tend to be large multi-sited institutions that dominate this type of provision in their area. Many further education colleges may approach similar scale as financial exigencies force further rationalisations. Community colleges are committed to open access and flexibility of provision, with courses running, for instance, from 7am to 11pm. Further education colleges are also moving towards such flexibility, although without the same level of resources afforded to community colleges in their expansion hey-day.
But whereas community colleges are exclusively 18-plus, further education colleges have many younger students and have to compete with the new universities, which provide a substantial amount of sub-degree work.
Further education colleges need a clearer definition of function and clientele if they are to avoid strategic drift. One way to achieve this is for them gradually to become predominantly 18-plus institutions devoted to sub-degree-level further education and training and incorporating all the adult non-examination work local education authorities sometimes run elsewhere. Provision for 16-19s would gradually be rationalised around sixth forms and sixth-form colleges, allowing the possibility that a comprehensive tertiary 16-19 sector might still emerge.
Universities would regain their mission of being research-led institutions providing degree and higher level education, with subdegree provision, such as foundation and access courses being largely provided in colleges.
Two-plus-two courses could be developed on a systematic nationwide basis, but with the respective roles of the further and higher education sectors clearly demarcated. Short-course vocational higher education might legitimately be run by universities.
But there would be a presumption that sub-degree work was the province of the college rather than the university. This would be good for maintaining the distinctive mission of universities as well as for maintaining standards.
Andy Green and Norman Lucas of the London University Institute of Education are editing a book entitled FE and Lifelong Learning: Realigning the Sector for the 21st Century.