Too few learners per classroom and marketing strategies that pit college against neighbouring college are among the issues preventing the sector from being “sustainable”, according to FE Commissioner Dr David Collins.

In a letter to all chairs and principals of FE institutions, dated October 30, Dr Collins said that, with the sector as a whole having posted an annual deficit “for the first time since incorporation”, there were still “major efficiencies” that institutions could make as the government’s area reviews of post-16 education and training get underway.

“More funding in the sector would of course be welcomed and the proposed new apprenticeship levy offers significant opportunities but there are still major efficiencies to be made in existing institutions as the intervention process over the last two years has clearly demonstrated,” wrote Dr Collins.

“Class sizes remain low in many colleges and well below the 16-20 average range necessary to ensure a college’s ongoing viability; there are considerable differences in the amount of time and money spent on management and support services and significant resources are used on competitive marketing – one college against another – rather than on marketing the real opportunities that colleges as a whole can offer to learners and employers.”

“The area review process is now under way with a view to addressing these issues and creating a more sustainable sector.”

The letter comes after the government announced money-saving plans for colleges to get 16-year-old vocational learners into apprenticeships after a year, as revealed by FE Week.

But while funding concerns were a “major driving factor” behind area reviews, they were “not only a way of encouraging colleges to tackle the problem of reduced funding collectively,” said Dr Collins, adding that he expected every area of the country to have undergone or be undergoing a review by March 2017.

They were also, he said, “an opportunity for the sector to take stock, refocusing colleges on the needs of the economy and ensuring they become the local and regional hubs of professional, technical and vocational education”.

To do this, said Dr Collins, more colleges should move into “higher level skills” and in some cases become “more specialised in what they offer, working closely with the LEPs and local authorities that will increasingly steer the skills system at the local level as devolution deals come into play”.

While there is “no blueprint for what might happen in a particular area”, Dr Collins outlined a number of ways in which colleges could develop a “new collaborative approach”.

These include creating larger colleges “through mergers or federations”, “greater curriculum specialisation” and “curriculum rationalisation”, more sharing of expertise, staff development and back office services across colleges, and better use of technology.

The government has so far announced seven areas involved in the first wave of its review of post-16 education and training.

The first group of area reviews to be announced on September 8 covered 22 FE colleges and 16 sixth form colleges (SFCs) in Birmingham and Solihull, Greater Manchester, and Sheffield. The second group, announced on September 25, involved 21 FE colleges and 13 SFCs in the Tees Valley, Sussex Coast and Solent regions. A review of seven general FE colleges and four SFCs in West Yorkshire was announced on October 16.

Dr Collins revealed some of his early findings from the area reviews last month at the Higher and Further Education Show at London’s Excel.