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Area reviews too early to say

21 July 2015

This week’s statement from the Government on reviewing post-16 education and training institutions sets out an aspiration for mergers and reform of colleges. The statement notes that post-16 education is “critical to our strategy of raising productivity and economic growth”. To get there, the Government wants to see “strong institutions” which have high status, specialist provision and credible routes to employment. The strategy for doing this is a “national programme of area-based reviews” which will be carried out in the next 18 months and which may lead to restructuring of provision. The Government was elected with a clear majority and wishes to make changes to the post-16 system. What is less certain is how this will happen. Ministers are now committed to devolution and do not want to organise the reviews centrally. The statement is therefore an invitation to colleges, local enterprise partnerships, councils and others to come together to take a new look at the local situation. National government is setting a pretty clear expectation that they will do so and offers some sticks and carrots to move things along. The idea is that some colleges will become Institutes of Technology as a result of this process (though what this actually means is still to be decided). Meanwhile there is an implied threat that funding may be withdrawn and governing bodies removed if there is no college co-operation. We will find out in the next few months exactly what this means in practical terms. It is too early to say that there will be a cull of colleges. Mergers involve up-front costs and often result in a short-term dip in performance. Colleges will avoid merging unless there are clear benefits from doing so, for example a firm offer of capital funding or advantages for students and employers. Without funding for rationalisation, the words about colleges getting larger may just be that: words. Those running colleges will also respond to all the signals that Government gives, not just those in a single policy statement. This week's funding announcement and Treasury spending review paper send a very firm signal about the future. Economies of scale may help colleges make their resources go further but other tactics may make more sense. Full-time courses for young people still look a firmer bet financially than anything offered for adults while apprenticeships (sometimes run in partnership) are likely to be the best protected budget in the coming spending round. The college sector shares the Government's aspiration for a stronger professional and technical education system. Area reviews should help collect better evidence about what is needed to get there. The question we don't yet know the answer to is whether anyone will act on what they say. Julian Gravatt is the Assistant Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges.