The link between area reviews and their original aim – of matching skills to labour market need – has been lost, says Caireen Mitchell.

When BIS announced the area reviews in March, the process had at its core a complex but noble purpose: to deliver financially viable, resilient institutions, with strong reputations, delivering a high-quality offer to meet an area’s educational and economic needs.

We welcomed an area review process that sought to address the need to ensure that the supply of skills provided by those graduating from FE colleges matched the needs of the London labour market.

However, as we await the review report, it appears it will read like a publication of marriage banns, with about as much chance of success as any partnership these days. Our concern is that the link between the area reviews and their original aims has been lost as the process has proceeded. Instead, it has prioritised the reorganisation of colleges to maintain local provision.

The WKCIC Group was created through the merger of Westminster Kingsway and City and Islington Colleges in August 2016 and is by some way the largest FE organisation in the capital. We were pioneers, embracing a merger ahead of the area review process, and we can already demonstrate how the colleges have continued to thrive.

The direct central encouragement of merger occurred only when austerity measures pushed an increasing number of colleges into financial hardship

When the area review process was announced, the two colleges were already at an advanced stage of discussion. Admittedly, we were rather surprised to be so. Both City and Islington College and Westminster Kingsway College were very successful colleges in their own right: City and Islington with a reputation for educational excellence and Westminster Kingsway as a dynamic and employer-focused college. Both colleges had very strong recruitment and were financially healthy.

We came to the table to discuss some form of collaboration because of a common desire to diversify income and a concern that the comprehensive spending review would see further significant reductions for colleges. We felt collaboration would make us stronger, more ambitious, help us develop new income streams and better equip us to weather any storm.

However, the biggest enabler for our merger was not the willingness of people in the room to collaborate, but the significant shift in government policy on college mergers.

Earlier government policy – despite the “freedoms and flexibilities” provided by the then-skills minister John Hayes – favoured smaller local colleges, and numerous merger proposals were rejected. Mergers were encouraged only to solve quality and financial health problems and there was little incentive for colleges to spend time and resources on merger proposals that were unlikely to be agreed.

The direct central encouragement of merger occurred only when austerity measures pushed an increasing number of colleges into financial hardship and full government support of mergers came only with the area review proposals.

This prompts the question of whether area reviews were necessary across all colleges, or whether a policy change encouraging merger (and the austerity measures) may have sufficed. In London, several colleges announced intentions to explore merger prior to the review, which suggests that resources could have focused on those institutions in poor financial health or with quality problems. Indeed, the area review process has caused a clamour and urgency to merge which could lead to failures.

For years, as a sector, we’ve been told that we don’t meet employers’ skills needs. New initiatives are brought in (Train to Gain, Full level targets); we reform and respond yet employers’ skills needs are still not met.

The area reviews seemed to offer the opportunity to understand exactly what the skills gaps are and how they could better be met, though a comprehensive analysis of supply and demand. Admittedly, the complexity of the London labour market coupled with FE’s complex qualifications structure, means that any attempt to map supply and skills gaps would be very challenging. Perhaps this is why this aim seems to have been set aside, with the focus shifted to creating financially stable institutions.

Area reviews may have brought about mergers, and therefore hopefully greater financial stability across the sector. But it seems unlikely that it will lead directly to significant quality improvement, a narrowing of the skills gap and greater specialisation. Perhaps those tasks are being left to the LEPs.

 

Caireen Mitchell is group director of planning and performance at WKCIC Group