It’s obvious why the latest group to seek to ‘transform’ FE (mere ‘change’ is so last century) should want to call itself the ‘Gazelle Group’. Gazelles are slim and pretty; the group’s supporters even claim that they are agile, though I’ve never seen one climb a tree. They are fleet of foot, tread lightly on the earth, and are always alert.
This conveniently ignores the fact that in the great scheme of things the main role of gazelles is to help turn grass into hyenas. They fill the same niche between herb and hunter that the lemming does in colder climates, and though ‘the lemming league’ would have less of a ring to it, it’s no less appropriate. Lemmings are arguably more agile but, like gazelles, are first and foremost prey.
The antelopes, however, do have one feature that resonates with FE: they engage in ‘pronking’. For those not familiar with the term it means that when danger approaches, instead of running away they repeatedly leap stiff legged into the air.
Spending a lot of energy going nowhere does not seem a wise move but the aim apparently is to say to the predator ‘Look at me. I’m tough. Eat someone else’. There is always a lot of pronking in the FE sector.
The aim of the Gazelle Group is to promote enterprise. The underpinning rationale is that young people can no longer rely on being employed by large organisations and instead need to prepare themselves to create their own future. They need to show initiative, creativity and entrepreneurial skills. They need to be good at networking and on occasion prepared to take risks. They need, in the vernacular, to ‘look out for themselves’.
To a large extent this is wise and not particularly novel advice. Those who show initiative have always done better than those who wait for things to be handed to them on a plate. Those who are excited by a challenge have always done better than those who are fearful of change. Imagination and creativity are important alongside technical skills.
Spending a lot of energy going nowhere does not seem a wise move but the aim apparently is to say to the predator ‘Look at me. I’m tough. Eat someone else’. There is always a lot of pronking in the FE sector.”
Furthermore it is good to stress that learning in colleges should be active, should engage and excite students through project work and give opportunities for team working. Just repeating classes in English and maths, important as they are, is not going to motivate many.
There are, however, serious dangers if the idea of entrepreneurship is taken to extremes, as so many ideas are these days. Here are the top three.
First, the reality is that very few young people will become self-employed, particularly in the early stages of their careers. The proportion of the workforce that is self-employed is small, and even that number is inflated by those who pretend not to be employees for tax purposes, as well as those odd jobbing to pad out a pension. Suggesting to young people that they can all be the next Richard Branson risks setting up thousands to fail.
Secondly, the idea that advanced economies are characterised by heroic individual entrepreneurs is a romantic myth. As Ha-Joon Chang, author of “20 things they don’t tell you about capitalism” convincingly shows, many developing countries have enterprising individuals in abundance and it does them no good at all. Economic performance is primarily driven by complex and sophisticated systems of finance, stable institutional frameworks and the rule of law.
Most importantly, however, a focus on entrepreneurship risks transferring responsibility for unemployment from failed institutional arrangements to the young people themselves. They can be made to believe that they are out of work, not because of misguided economic policy, but because they are not enterprising enough. This, of course, will suit the predators in our system who offer interns the ‘opportunity’ to work for nothing and see the answer to poverty as ‘getting on your bike’. FE ought to offer a more sophisticated narrative.
Mick Fletcher is a Further