Colleges have had a rougher ride than universities, but they still offer opportunities, says Colin Flint
Now that Simon Schama has concluded his splendid television series on the history of Britain, perhaps his next project could be the story of further education. He would find many similarities: bloody battles, political betrayals, an abdication and labyrinthine intrigues. We have had the great siege of the Wirral, the storming of Halton Towers, the sacking of Stoke, the hunting down of the Becket of Bilston, and the rout of the funding council. We did not quite have the black death, but not many of the principals who marched bravely into incorporation are still standing, and 20,000 of our foot soldiers are no longer with us. We could come right up to date with the coronation of our new leader, flanked by Her Majesty's ministers, with fanfare and high expectation, and a chorus of 47, mostly old lags but all spruced up and wearing new hats. All this, and much more, in just seven years. It has been a bumpy ride.
In a sense, the Learning and Skills Act marks the end of the further education sector. The 1992 act created a national network of colleges, all presenting their strategic plans to one agency and funded according to those plans, and all subject to the same external quality system. Before 1993, the sector had no central information, no shared funding methodology, highly sporadic capital investment and virtually no public image. From April 2001, colleges will be part of a different structure, in which they take their place alongside other providers of post-compulsory education and training (apart, of course, from the universities).
Many of us thought that incorporation would usher in a golden age. It was the chance to demonstrate what we knew. We provided most of the nation's skills training. We rescued many of those who failed in the school system. We did basic skills, special needs, A levels, vocational qualifications, higher national diplomas and recreational education.
And we still do, to an even greater extent. But we got some of it badly wrong, in particular our internal politics. We are still failing to represent the strengths of our work adequately. We have fought the wrong wars, missed opportunities, scored too many own goals. You cannot afford to do these things when you are seeking to establish your credibility in a world in which education is so high up the agenda.
Yet the case for further education is a powerful one for two compelling reasons. First, there have been great achievements in the years since incorporation. Second, nothing else comes close to matching our range of educational and training provision. A secretary of state for education might not invent the general college if it did not already exist, but he would have to work very hard to create new systems to deliver the same range of services.
Despite tabloid-style headlines, most colleges are well managed. Colleges provide far more A-level students than schools. They provide nearly all of the pre-entry vocational qualifications and most of the in-service ones. They are a significant part of the nation's higher education system, and an essential part of adult education opportunity. They do much of the remedial basic-skills work. They have increased directly taught student numbers year on year since incorporation despite vicious "efficiency gains" under the Tories that persist under Labour.
The funding methodology was one mistake, neat and elegant though it looked when first unveiled. It moved us too far away from our students, and it became ever more complicated as it tried desperately to keep up with the well-honed and seasoned ingenuities of colleges.
Franchising was another mistake, but it was initially at least an attempt to deliver unrealistic growth targets on inadequate money. It made hucksters of us all. The industrial relations battles were a mistake, on both sides, and their consequences linger, leaving us with a demoralised and underpaid workforce, a problem that must be remedied. And we failed to grasp the wonderful opportunity that the Kennedy report gave us. One gets the impression that universities feel that they have been hard done by in recent years. Maybe, but it does not look much like it from where I stand. It has been a different text, partly because the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has been so effective, partly because politicians get nervous about criticising universities. Universities might take a careful look at what has happened to further education, because it might still happen to them.
We can tell them quite a lot about "efficiency gains", inspection regimes, student retention, responsiveness to industry. And, although we still have a long way to go, we do take student services and staff training seriously. It was suggested during the conception of the learning and skills legislation that higher education would be brought within its ambit. The CVCP fought this off: too great an attack on university autonomy. And yet it is nonsensical to leave it out if the justification of this upheaval is the creation of a system more responsive to the nation's needs.
The present system does not work well enough. It has left us with 6 million functionally illiterate adults and an under-qualified workforce, a national educational participation rate that is way below most of our competitors, and a social structure that is still influenced by privilege. The section of the sector that has tried hardest, and is best equipped to change these things, is perceived to have failed to deliver in terms of quality and quantity.
We will accept chastisement for our manifold sins, and get on with the job. We will go on offering opportunity, and changing people's lives. Bring on the revolution - but let's hope it is the right one this time.
Colin Flint is principal, Solihull College.