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Why the latest review of colleges requires caution

By John Simpson

Published 01/09/2015

Consultation document: Stephen Farry
Consultation document: Stephen Farry

Employment Minister Stephen Farry has launched a consultation on the development of our further education colleges in July, seeking responses by October 2. The strategies now signposted are ambitious and welcome. The minister will face some criticisms.

His timing will attract the criticism that he is asking for responses during the summer when the colleges are less able to prepare considered collective responses.

Congratulations are due for his ambition, though caution will emerge on questions about the feasibility of developing ambitious enough consensually-based operational plans.

There is something of an apparent contradiction in the official approach. On one hand, it commends the improved work of the colleges in recent years. In contrast, the review identifies scope for further improvements in many aspects of their current work.

It looks critically at curriculum provision, relevance to the needs of the economy, enhancement of teaching quality and methods, and the enhancement of the employment prospects of successful students. In summary, the FE colleges have greatly improved in the past decade but they could be so much better - an each-way bet by the minister?

To set an agenda the minister outlines 18 separate possible policy commitments. Each is worthy, but not each of these commitments would carry equal weight or priority. Unfortunately, the 18 separate themes are not presented with a guide to their relative priorities.

There is a weakness in a review which is so ambitious that it is ruling nothing out and not signposting education and training priorities in a setting where there will obviously be financial and resource constraints.

This consultative document is meritorious. Difficult choices can now be seen in an ambitious context where improvements are signposted.

There are two points of structured criticism in relation to both governance and finance. The consultation is taking place on the implicit assumption that the range of improvements can take place by drawing on the talents and goodwill of the current management and professional leadership. Much of that may be true, but the minister might have a stronger influence if he could judiciously offer extra incentives and resources. With the recent necessity for the colleges to make staff reductions and reduce current budgets, the flexibility of an increasing budget is missing.

To implement some of the changes, the sensible hope is that the (as yet untested) arrangements to implement reform in the proposed new training programmes for apprenticeships will offer a basis for wider co-operation with employers.

A second critical issue emerges from the apparent theme of changes in the governance of the FE colleges. The minister, whether by stealth or knowingly, is making the argument that in Northern Ireland the six colleges should function to an agenda of common goals, common standards and shared curriculum specialisms. The colleges will be in competition in attainment performance league tables but not to the point of competition where provision is duplicated.

The questions of governance lead into the possible narrowing of the discretionary decision making and scope for innovative competitive responses from (or by) the colleges. The colleges are now all subject to the rules of NDPBs (non-departmental public bodies). This constrains aspects of planning and financial decision making, much to their disappointment.

There are many important issues now to clarify. How will the colleges relate to the plans to grow the economy? Where will some existing courses be withdrawn? How will plans for priority skills be agreed and implemented? How would these plans relate to the plans in GB for new training levies on large employers? What mechanisms will ensure good employer to college relationships? Will college teaching performance be assessed? Will student employability be enhanced? Will the colleges perform at good international standards?

Stephen Farry has posed good questions. Can he deliver acceptable good early answers?

Belfast Telegraph

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