Too lean to be mean

November 14, 1997

Colin Flint advises the government to think the unthinkable, say the unsayable and to acknowledge that now it is further education's turn

It has not been a good year for colleges. Over 55 per cent of them are now regarded as "vulnerable" or "weak" financially, 80 per cent of them are operating on reduced funding in 1997/98, average unit of resource has been cut by 28 per cent since incorporation and the sector deficit was Pounds 112 million in 1995/96.

The higher education sector, in which the pain is a good deal less but from which the noise is a great deal louder and much more effective, manages these things better than we do. By the 1999/2000 academic year, the higher education sector expects to be Pounds million in the red (THES, October 24). I do not know what the forecast for the further education deficit for 2000 might be at the current rate of progress, but it would make Pounds million look like pocket money.

When you cut and cut and cut again, you go beyond the notional fat that there might have been in the system. You are into bone. You do damage to the structure, you put at risk the powers of recovery. In any case, there never was very much fat in the further education sector. Most restrictive practices and staff went long ago, leaving only a few marginalised recidivists. In the majority of colleges they are both small in number and largely irrelevant, and are even more poorly paid than their colleagues. But all further education staff are badly paid: the top of the teaching scale in colleges is still under Pounds 23,000, and gets ever closer to average non-manual pay.

It is time for the government's rhetoric to get a bit closer to reality and to start affecting practice. I should think 95 per cent of further education voted for change on May 1, and we all understood, even if we regretted, the commitment to leave direct tax levels untouched. But confidence is seeping away after that bright new morning: things have not got perceptibly better, and in some areas they look worse. In John Cleese's memorable phrase, it's not the despair that gets you, it's the hope.

In Solihull, we have just received a press release from David Blunkett about the New Deal and the private sector: "We are inviting the private sector to lead the delivery of New Deal in a total of ten locations where (it) seems to offer the best prospect of quality and effectiveness." How do you know, Mr Blunkett? Have you seen our submission to lead the New Deal? Are you seriously interested in new models, genuine partnership and collaborative community-based provision? Who is advising you on this? James Paice?

At the Labour conference in Brighton, Tony Blair committed the government to getting an extra 500,000 people into higher and further education by the year 2002. Some of these will be included in a higher percentage of school-leavers who - despite fees - will go straight into higher education. More will be older people who chose employment at 18 but who have the qualification for university entrance. Nine out of ten of them, however, will come into further education because only it is comprehensive enough and adaptive enough to give them the help they will want, restore their confidence, meet their needs.

If we follow the logic that informs Helena Kennedy's excellent report on widening participation, then we understand that education - learning - is the key to economic development and success, individual fulfilment, and social cohesion.

We need to think the unthinkable, say the unsayable, do what previously could not be done. We need to redefine our educational objectives and priorities and free ourselves from obsolete and irrelevant mind-sets. What is adult education in the year 1997? Well at least some of it is what the majority of learners in general further education colleges are doing. Their average age is around 28, probably over 30. A lot of them are following the kind of higher education route that suits them - the one that further education provides and which higher education could not and has never before wanted to.

The future lies not in university education, but in the universality of education. New possibilities have been unlocked: let us now plan, collaboratively, to realise them. And let us hope that this week's conference of the Association of Colleges receives assurance that this government really does understand what the new agenda is and that, by whatever means, it will start finding some of the resources. It is, surely, further education's turn.

Colin Flint is principal of Solihull College.

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