Universities and schools must not be taken down the same funding road as further education, say Patrick Ainley and Bill Bailey.
Helena Kennedy, QC's report Learning Works, commissioned by the Further Education Funding Council, did a good job of advocacy for further education but does not really reveal what goes on there for those sharing what she describes as "the appalling ignorance about further education". To address this ignorance Bill Bailey and I interviewed staff and students in two contrasting colleges.
In our book The Business of Learning our interviewees recounted their experiences since 1993, when FE colleges ceased to be funded by local education authorities and instead became institutions charged with managing their own budgets. These budgets are determined by a funding formula based on student numbers and drawn up by the FEFC, a quango at arm's length from government.
The effects of this new funding method, which is predicated on an annual reduction in the amount of money for teaching each student, are pervasive. As one lecturer said: "What is fundamental is the funding methodology. Basically, each year we are getting 90 per cent of the funding for the previous year and everything flows from that." Or as the principal of one college put it: "We're on the bottom line now; there's no contingency. So if we carry on with this funding regime we've got to cut our service."
It is "an enormous and fearsome task", one manager told us, just to make the returns required by the funding council. Students we interviewed confirmed the supposition of one assistant principal that "all students have a good idea how much they are worth to the college - between Pounds 1,500 and Pounds 3,000 ... (so that) everybody is pretty clear that they are valuable commodities". In the view of some teachers this made students "arrogant" and reluctant to accept guidance on courses beyond their capacities. Most students were not in a position to notice the deterioration in the quality of their learning alleged by some teachers because, as a lecturer stated: "It's a kind of norm. They've come up through the whole school system where things have been squeezed all the way."
One thing, however, was obvious to many students, including the 16-year-old resitting her GCSEs who said: "You have to work harder and harder to get a worse and worse job. You have to go to university to get what 30 years ago you didn't even have to have A levels for." Our interviews give an insight into how students negotiate the new mass system. Many school-leavers move from one course or scheme to another without ever entering full-time employment - a pattern of learning and earning that begins early with work experience and part-time work at school and FE colleges and then carries on in higher education.
Like their students, new and younger lecturers resented the insecurity of their situation but accepted things as they found them. Those staff who had benefited from additional funding for special needs and new technology most readily acknowledged improvements since 1993. Longer-serving staff and those in declining curriculum areas recognised a sharpening divide between teachers and managers. Together with the accountability demanded by the new funding methodology, this sometimes led to "management by memo", "bits of paper showering down", in which "we are monitored for everything", "a charade" where the temptation was to reply: "All quality audits present and correct, sir!" Many interviewees looked back to an idealised past when further education was still run by local authorities although most recognised that returning to these "good old days" was impossible. There seemed no alternative to the competitive business they felt further education had become. "People don't know what to do. They're snookered," said one. "The job has become unrecognisable," explained another maingrade lecturer. "I've never worked as long hours a day, so many days a week and I can't see it getting any better and I find that intolerable because I don't see how it's possible to put boundaries around the drive for productivity. I just see it as a continual push for more work out of fewer staff."
Increased workloads were not resented in themselves but because they detracted from what interviewees saw as the public service mission all staff shared, which meant, as many of them said, "students come first". Even for senior managers, this led to "a schizophrenic management which gets carried along on two tracks. One is that I'm an educationist and the other is that we've got to survive."
"I don't think you can run a college like a business," a lecturer summed up, echoing many others. "We should be offering a service not saying: 'How many units (of funding) is this (course) going to attract?' We're all very aware of how many units are attracted by certain courses and it's very much finance-driven." That the funding methodology was distorting the curriculum away from the needs of students and the economy was a common allegation made by staff.
It is important that others outside further education begin to understand what has happened. The story of further education in the 1990s can be taken as an awful warning to schools and universities to avoid the predictable outcome of contract funding on a reducing unit of resource. It is a funding methodology which leads, through cut-throat competition, to closures and mergers of institutions. The attempt to run a national system of further education through centralised funding must be abandoned. The FEFC will have to be replaced by regional funding bodies. A new learning infrastructure of regionally interrelated schools, colleges and universities can be developed with devolved funding on the European model.
The new government should be dissuaded from applying an FEFC-type funding method to all post-compulsory learning with vouchers disguised as "lifelong learning accounts" unifying sixth forms, further education, higher education and training. Such a move could be presented as having the same apparent virtues of "fairness" and "toughness" with which the FEFC announced its funding method to the colleges but, in practice, it would have the same disastrous results only on a wider scale.
The real choice facing the new government is whether to maintain the present further education funding machinery as it heads for meltdown or to embrace a real alternative. A parliamentary committee of inquiry is examining further education funding, following the FEFC's own review last year which could not agree any new funding method. Kennedy's report also dodged the funding issue. Yet something has to be done soon for this is the most pressing problem facing government in any area of education today.
If nothing is done a whole sector of education with more than three million students and nearly 250,000 staff in 452 colleges - more than half of the colleges in debt - may literally collapse. A unique national resource, closely related to local industries and the nearest thing the country has to institutions for educating the whole community, would then be lost.
Patrick Ainley with co-author Bill Bailey of The Business of Learning, Staff and Student Experiences of Further Education in the 1990s, published by Cassell, is at the University of Greenwich School of Post-Compulsory Education and Training.