'Nothing to fear' if colleges brought into public ownership, says AoC chief in tense exchange with MPs

Colleges have “nothing to fear” about being brought into public ownership, the head of their membership organisation told MPs today as he refused to give a straight answer on whether he supports the potential move.

Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes was one of a number of witnesses to be quizzed by the education select committee this morning about the upcoming FE White Paper, which education secretary Gavin Williamson claims will be “revolutionary”.

One hot topic that led to a tense exchange between Hughes and committee chair Robert Halfon was the issue of whether colleges in England should be brought back into public ownership – an option that is being considered by the Department for Education, as revealed by FE Week in May.

After Halfon asked for a “yes or no” answer on whether he supports this option, Hughes said: “I don’t think it is a straight yes or no answer. Sorry I’m going to be a politician on this. I think what we need is the right relationship. We need the freedoms and flexibilities. We need to get them as strategic players.”

The chair insisted that this is an important issue which will make a difference to college autonomy, control and funding and that the head of the AoC “should be able to give a view on”.

Hughes insisted that he is “agnostic”, stating that this is a decision to be made “at the end of the white paper by the ONS [Office for National Statistics] not a front decision”, adding that it “might be that they [colleges] become public sector” as they are “public ethos institutions”.

The AoC boss later said that in Scotland and Northern Ireland, colleges are in the public sector and they are “thriving and doing well” so there is “nothing to fear about it”.

“The thing is about the right investment and right relationship,” he continued. “That might mean they get designated public sector, I think that is fine but what we mustn’t lose is their ability to gain investment from employers.”

Colleges were technically brought out of public ownership nine years ago by the ONS when the Education Act 2011 was introduced.

This legislation removed the need for colleges to seek consent before borrowing from banks and limited government powers to intervene where a college is being mismanaged or is performing poorly.

Other witnesses to be asked for their opinion on colleges being brought back into public ownership included Kirstie Donnelly, chief executive of the City and Guilds Group, and Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association.

Donnelly said her “stance is that they [colleges] need to be more owned by the employer…the employer has to have more say in what colleges deliver”.

Watkin said sixth form colleges, which have had the option of converting to academy status and therefore becoming publicly owned since 2015, have had a “positive experience” of the change.

But he stressed it is “good to give colleges a choice about whether to join the public sector or not because local context can be really important in the decision”.

The FE White Paper is due to be published this autumn.

 

Full exchange between Hughes and Halfon during today’s hearing:

Halfon: On the public ownership issue. I don’t feel you gave me a straight answer on it. Yes or no should FE colleges be brought back into the public sector?

 

Hughes: I don’t think it is a straight yes or no answer. Sorry I’m going to be a politician on this. I think what we need is the right relationship. We need the freedoms and flexibilities. We need to get them as strategic players.

 

Halfon: That doesn’t mean anything. It is a big thing and it is being talked about. The head of the AoC should be able to give a view on it surely.

 

Hughes: The ONS will decide whether they are public or private – the relationship is what we want to focus on and then the ONS make that decision.

I am agnostic I’m sorry. It is the end of the white paper decision by the ONS not a front decision. It might be that they become public sector. They are public ethos institutions.

 

Halfon: I don’t accept it won’t make any difference because there will be issues of autonomy and control and funding and all kinds of things.

David I have to say I don’t think you should duck this. As head of the AoC you must have a view on it either way you can’t be agnostic on something as fundamental as whether or not all colleges should be brought back into the public sector.

 

Hughes: I’ll do another political answer – in Scotland and Northern Ireland they are public sector, they are thriving and they are doing well. There is nothing to fear about it. The thing is about the right investment and right relationship. That might mean they get designated public sector, I think that is fine but what we mustn’t lose is their ability to gain investment from employers.