An open letter to David Melville

March 27, 1998

Dear David, Soon after your appointment as chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council, we discussed university/college relationships. You expressed your belief in the identity and mission of individual community institutions. You were sceptical about large universities subsuming small colleges since there was a danger of academic drift and a loss of regional purpose but we both recognised the importance of increased collaboration and the possibility of further mergers.

There is new interest in collaboration and rationalisation and specific government encouragement and financial support for it. Differing experiments in amalgamation and partnerships in, for example, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Hereford, Hertfordshire and Nottingham, are taking place.

But they are framed against a backdrop of independently controlled institutions with autonomous boards of governors who may be receptive to, or reactionary against, the need for progress.

The result may well be that, across the country, a variety of forms of governance is devised with differing relationships with higher education partners.

Yet the imperative for rationalisation of further education arises from the need to provide a better service to millions of students. If this occurs piecemeal then the objectives of efficiency and educational effectiveness will be lost. Further, the concept of a managed system of post-16 lifelong learning could be obfuscated by power wrangles on the one hand over college control and a loss of academic and educational direction on the other. Since Christmas, scarcely a week has passed when at least one principal has telephoned, written or seen me, to ask for advice on how to proceed. What strikes me is their sense of anxiety, emanating from their desire to find solutions in the best interests of their institutions and students.

Certain objectives from the Dearing, Kennedy and Fryer reports could provide the impetus through which a smaller unified framework of institutions is created, dedicated to widening access and lifelong learning. It should promote a seamless educational curriculum from further to higher education. It should allow for efficiency of size and the maintenance of the identity of individual constituents.

Individual local colleges are of essential importance to the life of their communities. It is sad to see community college buildings closed or the names of civic locations lost in the titles of new institutions. We must not repeat the mistakes of the 1960s by creating large comprehensive institutions of anonymity. In this respect a university model with a network of exclusive interlocked community colleges could prove attractive. The regional university could assume the quality control functions and financial management services of its family of members. It would retain, through college academic principals and local advisory boards, the unique identity of each of its parts. In this way, colleges could be relieved of the burden of the financial management process permitting principals and staff to get on with the job of teaching students and developing a student-centred curriculum.

The need is for you to have the authority and the will to effect such change. The first could come through pressure on government to ensure that local governing boards cannot frustrate a national plan based on regional needs. The will comes from your desire to create a unified system of further education for the benefit of students, communities and the national educational interest.

With good wishes, Michael

Michael Scott is a pro vice-chancellor of De Montfort University. He writes in a personal capacity.

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