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What’s with the 'Stockholm syndrome?' - Ian Pryce CBE

07 July 2022

Ian Pryce, principal and chief executive of Bedford College Group

In September, colleges should be loudly celebrating 30 years of independence. The Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 created over 400 exempt charities, moving further education colleges from local authority control to independence, in a manner similar to the freedoms granted to polytechnics previously.

Given the DfE has recently determined that the far more recent experiment of academisation and multi-academy trusts are a success, despite very little evidence to support this contention, it is surely an appropriate time to evaluate how 30 years has changed the further education landscape.

Personally, I believe the freedoms we gained have been transformative and the incorporation model has been powerful, but there is a collective amnesia that makes it hard to detect the impact of long-ago change, and there is a real danger we might sleepwalk into a reversal that might look superficially attractive. Government can be a charming seducer when it comes to presenting captivity as the solution to our current woes.

I came into the sector just prior to incorporation. What I saw mirrored my experience of having worked through electricity privatisation. In that industry, new freedoms did lead to some excesses but it was transformative. Regular power cuts were replaced by the obligation of continuous supply and cuts are now extremely rare as a result of that redesign. The ability to choose your supplier generated genuine innovation.

In further education, my experience of visiting over 150 colleges in my first year revealed a majority had no proper handle on the number of students they served, little idea whether students succeeded, no data on progression or destinations, curriculum based on what staff they had, rather than what their communities needed, shoddy estates and poor equipment. Few teaching staff had teaching qualifications yet were comparatively well paid. Despite boasting that the sector was student-centred that was undermined by the lack of data. I knew far more about our electricity customers than my college did about its students. If you are selling electrical goods you have to know huge amounts about average incomes, educational level, family dynamics, local housing and demographics to know what to stock at which price points. Most colleges were completely unsophisticated in terms of data and marketing.

Incorporation brought three fundamental changes each of which were revolutionary and have informed our behaviour for three decades.

The first was funding following the learner. Before 1993, college budgets were a function of how good a principal was at extracting money from the local authority. Some were brilliant, extracting five times the amount per student of the worst. Sadly for them the world turned upside down in one day. They were suddenly leading the most inefficient colleges and charged with converging their “ALF” (average level of funding) to a national median within a few years, not without real pain. In contrast the weak negotiators were suddenly lauded as efficiency gurus, as though they had deliberately chosen to limit their funding.

When funding follows the student it makes us responsive to the needs, desires and demands of our community. We focus on what they want rather than what we want. It is unselfish, makes us agile, and gives real power to the student. Of course, it can lead to some bad behaviour, and did. After a few years came the first subcontracting scandal, known as franchising, but generally it has been positive. Colleges rarely compete with each other outside the big cities so it does not engender “bad” competition. When we talk about it leading to colleges chasing “bums on seats” it is both wrong and insulting. Who are you calling a bum?

The second big change was geographic freedom. Incorporation allowed colleges to respond to meaningful geographies, to actual travel-to-work zones. Colleges like mine would never have been allowed to develop provision outside the home authority in the way so many have. Cross-border mergers have created sensible provision maps, acknowledged by the area reviews.

The third was control of assets, a freedom not given to academies. Our buildings were transferred to our charities. Ever since we have been able to build new centres, remodel or even close existing ones. This has liberated the sector to serve fast growing communities, to get out of inefficient, old buildings, to spread beyond traditional local authority boundaries. Can you imagine how impossible it would have been to make such changes within a local authority structure? Again, these freedoms can be abused. Capital assets have been sold to prop up deficit budgets, we have even seen provision entirely removed from some towns and students required to travel further as a result. This is akin to the closure of cottage hospitals or the move from corner shops to out-of-town superstores. The change means we don’t have the issues confronting primary education where in many places the pattern is one of heavily oversubscribed schools alongside half-empty ones.

Polytechnics grasped their new freedoms and quickly established themselves as new universities. They reached escape velocity quickly. Many extended their curriculum and grew very fast, but these trends were often reversed as they realised the importance of their strategic strengths, often linked to their curriculum traditions and their local patch. They are generally stronger financially. Crucially no one has ever called for their independence to be reversed.

Our sector is different. Others seek to control our curriculum offer (panels to tell us employer needs, popular Btecs culled) or to intervene more. Even changes that look benign could end badly. Providing three-year funding removes the link between funding and learners, so we go back to pleasing our funder not our learner, back to political wrangling rather than serving our community. I would rather be hostage to our students than go cap in hand to the keeper of the funds.

Let’s have the debate, let’s have the evaluation, but let’s also have a party to celebrate the far-sighted decision that was incorporation. Other views welcome!

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.