Priorities for reform

April 24, 1998

What does Michael Scott ("An open letter to David Melville", THES, March ) think universities have to offer well-managed further education colleges in terms of financial management and quality control? More important, what do customers have to gain from "a university model with a network of exclusive interlocked community colleges" (my emphasis)? Little, I suspect, unless the unit of resource is to be spread evenly across the network.

I agree that the Further Education Funding Council needs to show more authority and leadership in shaping national policy, but certainly not in the direction suggested by Mr Scott. It is not the institutional model that requires reform but the now long-overdue need for a national framework including:

* a genuinely seamless and flexible qualification structure, regardless of sectoral interests; and

* funding priorities, including relevant student support mechanisms, that put widening participation above all other issues in further and higher education.

Heavy-handed meddling with local and regional institutional structures, although superficially attractive, will at best achieve little, and at worst could cause great damage and restrictions on choice. What we should have learnt from the past ten years is that institutional autonomy in schools, colleges and universities backed by high-quality governance works. It integrates financial, quality and curriculum decision-making at the right level; it produces more mature and responsive institutions. As a result, they are better positioned for genuine, customer-focused collaboration.

Colleges and universities desperately need this new qualifications framework and new funding priorities so that they can build more open and adventurous articulation of their progression routes for students, as well as their respective services to business. The key problem is not that of local governing boards frustrating "a national plan" but still a distinct lack of customer-focused thinking about the areas of policy most in need of national reform.

Martin Tolhurst Principal and chief executive Newham College of Further Education

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