Terms of empowerment

March 17, 1995

Colleges have done well since independence, but has anyone noticed? asks Ngaio Crequer. The copy-taker who took the story down over the telephone had no reason to think that he had misheard the reporter. But many reading the article in the following day's paper might have wondered what exactly these "envy queues" were.

The journalist had of course been referring to "NVQs" - National Vocational Qualifications. But this all took place some years ago, when NVQs had only recently been introduced. These days copy-takers would be a little more familiar with the jargon, and might even know something about the examinations themselves.

But the story illustrates two things: One, the continuing need to escape from the heavy burden of jargon in education; two, that with a little effort a change in perception can be achieved.

The former polytechnic sector has improved its public image immeasurably in the little time since the polys gained their independence. A group of sixth-formers I spoke to recently, weighing up their higher education options, saw no differences between the old and the new universities.

If the former polytechnics have achieved much, then the colleges, now also independent, have undergone a sparkling change. There was a feeling of high excitement in the college sector at the time of incorporation in 1993.

Further education had always been neglected by local government. It had never received much political attention when under local authority control, even though it explained and provided the education and training to meet local needs.

By 1993 it was felt that further education's day had come at last. Some of the restrictions imposed on the colleges could be done away with (though some l.e.as were better at funding than others). Some governing bodies felt that here was their chance to exercise real power in a new environment.

The thrill of independence, the belief that more money would be forthcoming, the exhortation to expand the sector by 25 per cent (even with strings attached) - all created a feeling of expectancy. Government had never really had a further education policy before, so it was a new experience for the colleges to be given this remit. Everything in the garden was lovely.

Since the Further Education Funding Councils established themselves, one of the things the colleges have realised is that the concept of freedom is largely illusory. There have been new rules and regulations and in some respects, one set of restraints has been exchanged for another. New demands are being made on the colleges in terms of information returns that never existed before. The pressure of coping with new funding methodologies has introduced a strain - though most colleges have adapted and are coping extremely well.

Each college, from being a big fish in a local pool, is now one of many in a much bigger sea. The ability to influence the funding councils is very limited.

Growth targets are proving tougher than anticipated. The financial regime is stringent if colleges do not achieve their targets. The demand is there but many students are unable to take up the places they want because they are without funds.

A recent survey by the Association for Colleges looked at the higher education role of colleges of further education. It exposed a two-fold problem. The effects of reductions in funding for students on higher education courses and cuts in Maximum Aggregate Student Numbers (MASNs) as a result of the freeze on higher education expansion were devastating.

Colleges reported that demand was increasing but they simply could not satisfy it. One college said: "We are turning away vast numbers of suitable applicants." In almost every case colleges had reduced new intakes. At one course, numbers were reduced from 350 students to 285. Another went from 60 to 30 students. Some courses just had to close.

Local education authorities, often strapped for cash, were unable to meet college needs in terms of maintenance and building repairs. Since incorporation colleges have been coping with this backlog. They have become experts in areas where previously they had little experience: in financial control, personnel and premises. They have re-thought their internal structures, and alongside their academic organisation they have added or extended marketing and promotion arms.

They have had to take on responsibility for themselves. It means of course the decisions are more crucial. They have had to become more business-oriented than before, but very few people in the colleges would want to return to the old system.

There have been many and significant changes in the kinds of courses offered. The colleges have always been very well-placed to respond to immediate needs - both of the student and those of the local industry and community.

But independence has made it easier to respond more directly, and more quickly. The colleges have introduced many flexible learning opportunities, such as open access resource centres, home-based computer-led courses, open and distance learning packages and programmes held on site at times convenient to students.

Much has been achieved in a very short time. The colleges have demonstrated their quality to the outside world. The first annual report of the chief inspector of further education, which involved the inspection of more than 100 colleges, concluded that the sector is "dynamic, responsive and entrepreneurial".

The National Audit Office has also recently recognised the gains made by the colleges. Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO, said in his first report on the sector since incorporation that: "Overall, colleges have responded well to the challenges of independence. There were numerous examples of colleges implementing good practice as regards propriety and achieving good value for money."

They have made significant progress towards meeting the student growth targets laid down by the Government. This is despite considerable pressures. They are being forced to cut teaching costs. There is increasing competition with schools as the Government encourages the latter to create sixth forms.

There is no doubt that the further education sector has considerably increased its profile.

Gillian Shephard, Secret-ary of State for Education, has made it one of her top priorities. There is a greater public awareness.

But this is an improvement starting from a low base. It is a sector well known by students, the local community, and employers - in other words the users. But it does not as yet have the special place in the heart of the nation which it deserves.

Strange that this huge and rapidly growing sector, which provides education and training for some three million students, suffers from the taint of invisibility.

The question of providing adequate and equitable funding for students will not go away. There are envy queues. They are the long lines of potential students who would like to get back into the job market - and to go to college as a means of helping them to do this. But they simply do not have the funds.

The Government has recently proposed a change to the 21-hour rule, the regulations governing the amount of time an unemployed person can study without their benefit being withdrawn.

The vehicle for making these changes, the Jobseekers Bill, brings us back to the problems of inaccessibility. Clause six states that regulations may prescribe circumstances in which, for the purposes of this Act: (a) a person who is not available for employment is to be treated as available for employment; (b) a person who is available for employment is to be treat-ed as not available for employment; (c) a person who is not actively seeking employment is to be treated as actively seeking employment; or (d) a person who is actively seeking employment is to be treated as not actively seeking employment. Trying to explain that to a lay person is about as difficult as getting the Government and country to discover it needs further education and the colleges more than it realises.

Ngaio Crequer is communications manager at the Association for Colleges.

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