Forum threat to autonomy

April 24, 1998

Universities should join colleges, local government and employers in proposed new regional forums, which would impose common principles for the planning, funding and inspection of all post-16 education, government advisers will recommend this summer.

Plans for local area education and training partnerships, drawn-up at the request of ministers by the Further Education Funding Council, the Training and Enterprise Councils, and the Local Government Association, will be finalised in May and submitted to the Department for Education and Employment in June.

The powerful "tripartite" group has already agreed on plans to collaborate to "get rid of the nonsenses in the post-16 system", said Mary Lord, director of training and education at the TEC National Council.

The group will advise ministers to establish area forums, which would initially represent colleges, local education authorities and TECs.

The forums will come together to "review the volume, quality and relevance" of all the strands of post-16 education in a local area, to cut out duplication of provision and ensure "adequacy and sufficiency".

Although the forums are not expected to have management responsibility for institutions, it is expected that they will have the power to approve, or veto, an individual institution's provision and strategic plan, to ensure it meets the requirements of the region's labour market and economy.

The forums will also agree to common funding principles, designed to end the historical disparities between school sixth forms, colleges and work-based training. This sees different providers attracting different levels of funding for the same type of education provision.

Common principles for inspection, involving closer collaboration between schools' inspectorate Ofsted, the FEFC inspectorate and the TECs' new Training Standards Council, will also be established.

"It will be a massive job to bring everyone together," said Ms Lord. "We have not yet had discussions with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, but that will be the next step. We must first get the partnerships in place around the 16-19 agenda, but higher education is part of our vision."

She anticipates teething troubles. "It is not as simple for higher education to join the forums, as some have a national and international role. We do not suggest universities shouldn't have that market, but we have always said they should have a regional focus."

The plans are being taken seriously by education minister Tessa Blackstone, who has been "pushing the debate forward", and Roger Dawe, director general of further and higher education at the DFEE, who is responsible for implementing the measures, Ms Lord said.

It is unclear how the new forums would interact with proposed new government regional development agencies.

According to the regional development white paper the RDAs will "give a regional steer" to universities' and colleges' business plans.

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