I discovered some interesting statistics recently. Apparently something over 50 per cent of the franchising in further education is done by something less than 30 of the 450 colleges. Since 1993 there have been only 17 mergers in the sector. Of those only three have involved "equal" partners - two strong general further education colleges coming together. The others involved further education and sixth-form colleges, further/higher education institutions and further education and specialist institutions.
I also discovered an interesting phrase - this was in a letter from the further education minister James Paice, one of a series sent to chairs of governors putting the record straight on the great demand-led funding scandal. The phrase was "unnecessary competition". The implication was that colleges which had been enjoined to adopt the business ethic and make a god of the market-place had done these things too well - had grown, largely via franchising, at too great a rate, had competed on someone else's patch, had not been very gentlemanly and had, horror of horrors, competed unnecessarily.
In the same Further Education Funding Council circular which revealed the history of mergers I also read that the council "does not expect... to initiate reorganisation... its procedures have been developed in order to respond to proposed reorganisations". The FEFC is, after all, not a planning authority. In Holland, however, the government has directed a reduction by mergers over a ten-year period from 800 to 50 colleges. How is the ideology of competition and the rarity of mergers connected? And how might they come to be connected if the government changes?
The model of hyper-competition has never been a wise one. Competition has been confused with enterprise. Enterprise in the context of education should be about finding more and new types of students and approaching them in new types of ways. Entrepreneurs collaborate. They do not compete - or at least they only do so when the going gets rough. The trouble with the fuss about franchising is that it gives collaboration a bad name.
Genuine collaborations lead to mergers, partnerships, acquisitions and transfers. It is also significant that some proposals to the Dearing committee are calling for one post-school sector. We have not yet scratched the surface of the potential which further/higher education collaborations can offer to the undiscovered student.
Whether this will happen or not, change is in the air. Our watchwords will change. Collaboration will replace competition, partnership will replace franchising and if colleges are going to be big enough to fend off the cold winds, mergers and regional planning will replace the fiduciary controls of a funding regime which itself, some believe, is in tatters. There will be a number of pressing and non-costly things for a new secretary of state to do as the spring turns into summer. Changing the ideology of further education is one of them.
Keith Scribbins is chair of governors at City of Bristol College.