Muddle through just won't do

July 21, 1995

How much will a new Labour government - if we get one - want to reform the education reforms made by the Tories? All the talk is about the acceptability or otherwise of schools reform, especially the ability to opt out. But what of further and higher education?

Any new government looks for reforms which have political impact but low cost. Since most critics of incorporation do not focus on inadequate resourcing but on constitutional matters, funding mechanisms and sleaze, post-school education could find itself centre stage for early Labour legislation.

We must wait until the autumn to hear the detailed proposals for reforming further and higher education. But three recent developments - Tony Blair's Institute of Education speech, Bryan Davies's CIPFA conference address and proposals regarding trusts, give an inkling of what to expect.

The NHS trust proposals give the best hint as to how far Labour may be prepared to go in putting back the clock. The internal market in health care is to be abolished, trust hospital assets are to be returned to public ownership and boards of health authorities and trusts are to be opened up to more local representation.

How might all this translate into further and higher education? Accountability is the most serious issue. Most governors and many commentators can now see their lack of accountability as the Achilles' heel of the Tories' education reforms. Some believe that the solution is to make universities and colleges charities proper and governors trustees accountable to the Charity Commissioners.

Others (on the Tory right) would say the problem is that reforms did not go far enough and the solution is complete privatisation and the creation of governors as directors responsible to share holders. Less radical thinkers envisage only a limited change by the creation of elected overarching regional bodies and the presence on all governing bodies (as the key members?) of elected representatives.

It is hard to see how the further education funding councils can survive such a change in their present form. Might they have to become national advisory bodies for further education with greater devolution to the regional bodies?

Can the functions of governors of incorporated institutions - financial planning and scrutiny, determining educational character and acting as the employer - survive? Sleaze accusations bear on this.

Two solutions have been aired: more elected members and greater staff and student representation, or a return to the days of l988 when the act of that year (reformed in 1992) created a power sharing between governors in further education and local authority councillors. It seems improbable that the "democratisation" of governance could leave staff employment wholly in the hands of principals and boards.

If it is possible to depoliticise the agenda, what has gone wrong? Too much control from funding councils? Too much abuse of freedom by governors and managers? Too little preparedness to embrace change by the unions? There is, in truth, little evidence of any of this but in politics an ounce of shame is worth a ton of virtue.

If there was a time when governors and the profession in further and higher education needed an assertive assembly unified in its advice to government about how much the reforms should be reformed that time is now. Unfortunately that is precisely what we do not have.

Keith Scribbins is chair of the Colleges' Employers' Forum and chair of governors of South Bristol College.

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