FE colleges could be “left to stand on their own two feet”

Government reforms could see colleges given greater freedoms under plans to deregulate further education (FE).

The Education Bill, which is at the Lords Committee Stage, contains a range of measures to give colleges greater freedom from government control.

However, the Department for Education (DfE) say they could go further. A spokesman for DfE said: “Ministers are committed to increasing the freedoms of colleges from central control and bureaucracy.

The Education Bill already contains a range of measures to increase freedoms. “However, we are considering actively whether we can go even further than this. We hope to come back with proposals when the Bill reaches Report Stage.”

A briefing document sent out by the Association of Colleges (AoC) to their members – which has been seen by FE Week  – says the sector could soon see “some significant changes” in the rules which govern colleges.

Although the details remain unconfirmed, the paper says it could see the law change in two ways – allowing a college’s governing body to make a decision on mergers and to have more freedom over their own instruments and articles.

The document adds: “It is likely that these changes would apply to all ‘1992 Act Colleges’, i.e. to both FE colleges and sixth form colleges.

“One key purpose of these reforms is to show that colleges are legally independent of Government and should be treated as such by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) and the National Audit Office (NAO).”

It also reads: “At the same time, there is a looming risk that new financial controls and reporting requirements will be imposed on colleges because of the ONS and NAO view that colleges are in the public sector. This could take effect in 2012.”

We are a grown up sector, and should be set free to stand up on our own two feet. “

Financial consultant Bob Deed, who works in the FE sector, said deregulation would be a “move towards a fully independent college sector” and would “remove bureaucracy around mergers, borrowing and governance”. He also said: “However, deregulation must be replaced by effective self-regulation. “Codes of governance penned by the AoC are useful, but more radical approaches may need to be developed.”

He added: “An important benefit for all colleges from the changes – which could almost go unnoticed – would be the heading-off of new annual financial returns necessary for the consolidation of college accounts into the Whole of

Government Accounts. “Another piece of potential bureaucracy avoided might be the requirement for public sector organisations to publish details of all spending over £500.”

Principal of City College Norwich Dick Palmer, who is also a member of the department for business, innovation and skills (BIS) FE Performance and Review Board, said: “We are a grown up sector, and should be set free to stand up on our own two feet. Reclassification and greater Government ownership of colleges would be a retrograde step.”

FE Week approached AoC for a comment, but a spokesperson said: “We cannot comment on leaked documents.”

The DfE spokesman added: “The Government’s drive to give colleges greater freedoms have been welcomed by the AoC and the Sixth Form Colleges Forum.

“They share our view that colleges are best placed to respond to needs of students and employers, without being held back by unnecessary interference.”

The Education Bill is expected to go to Lords Report Stage on October 18.