Ian Pryce, chief executive, Bedford College Group

FE's longest serving principal reveals his fears over reclassification

If I'd started now, I’d have been sacked about three times

Ian Pryce believes FE “hasn’t been good” at telling the story of how 30 years of college independence from government changed it “out of all recognition”. The chief executive of the Bedford College Group, is determined to redress that in his final FE Week interview as he approaches retirement.

There is a perfect synchronicity to how his career matches that 30-year golden era.

Pryce, 64, started out in 1992 at the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC, forerunner to the Education and Skills Funding Agency), just as it was launched to replace local authorities in distributing funding to colleges.

He is now entering retirement as colleges have been reclassified as public sector entities and, as a consequence, lose the borrowing and spending freedoms independence has given them for three decades.

Pryce believes independence made the sector financially prudent and unleashed a wave of innovation, but fears reclassification will reverse those advances. He sees this as a “serious mistake”.

Ian Pryce Bedford College Group

The surreal interview

Pryce’s career in FE began with a very different sort of interview; in a desolate building with one other person present and no furniture. So strange was the set-up that Pryce “wondered if it was actually something real”. In the middle of a room sat Sir Robert Gunn, the chair of the new FEFC who Pryce had previously worked under at the East Midlands Electricity Board. Pryce had never set foot in a college before (aside from a concert), but Gunn persuaded him his new venture – to create a new national college sector – would be “really exciting”.

It was the start of a career journey for Pryce, who went on to become one of FE’s longest-serving leaders with 24 years at the helm in Bedford.

His previous role had been as a financial controller for East Midlands Electricity, which put him in good stead as an FEFC regional finance director, as both roles were “about freeing people up to be in charge of their own institution”.

Like colleges, Pryce had also quit the world of local government finance. His first job was as a trainee accountant under Derek Hatton, deputy leader of Liverpool City Council, when finance officers were tasked with trying to keep the city afloat by any means – including leasing car parking meters to a bank in Japan.

He recalls how when colleges were first “released from the shackles” of local authorities they were keen to distance themselves from their former gamekeepers. There ensued a “rupturing of relationships”, later regretted.

Ian Pryce in his younger years

Financial freedoms

Prior to independence, colleges’ funding was a patchwork quilt across the country with some getting five times more per student than others (the winners were those best at negotiating with their local authority).

Pryce slammed this as “clearly unfair and a bad use of national resources”.

Among the “transformative changes that we now take for granted” is the concept of funding following the learner through the national funding formula, which Pryce credits with creating fairness.

The mandate from government was for colleges to boost their numbers. But that growth had to be “very financially efficient”; “growth money” came at a “lower marginal rate”.

Pryce said it felt like “we were trying hard to give colleges the freedoms given to the old polytechnics”, which had just been made independent universities. Whereas college leaders previously lacked choice over which courses they could run, they were handed “significant control over their curriculum, their strategic intent…and were involved a lot in defining quality.”

Crucially, colleges were given control of their own assets, enabling them to “knock their buildings down, build them up and borrow on them” which facilitated the sector’s rapid growth.

Crucially, they could borrow from banks to “accelerate” projects.

Pryce believes college buildings “significantly improved” in the 10 to 15 years after incorporation while schools – which remained beholden to the purse-strings of government – had some “very poor” estates.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. College leaders now required new skills in how finances and estates were managed, and how colleges should market themselves. Some thrived, others did not. But the new corporate culture made colleges “more responsive” to what students wanted.

There was also a “lot of competition” in those early days between colleges in some of the big cities. “People were stealing each other’s students because they could. The government didn’t mind that, because they wanted that competition on quality.”

Ian Pryce with Gordon Brown

Feeling valued

Pryce believes the still prevalent myth that colleges are for those who “didn’t do well at school” and are mainly about “evening classes” was truer in those first few years than now.

But when the Blair years began in 1997, just after Pryce joined Bedford as finance director, government funding taps really started flowing, with “a big drive on community engagement and adult education”.

Colleges sat under the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills between 2007 to 2009, and being tied in with innovation and universities gave  them “a lot of engagement” with ministers.

Then in 2010, their mandate to widen participation was turbocharged when the education participation age was raised from 16 to 18.

Schools didn’t lower their entry criteria to more pupils; it was colleges that went on to become the most popular destination for 16 to 18-year-olds.

It was in the 2010s, when colleges lost their “special status” and became “providers”, that the tide started turning on them.

Per student 16 to 18 funding fell by 14 per cent in real terms between 2010–11 and 2019–20, and the government became more “hands-on” in its management, but without the nuanced understanding of colleges to do so effectively.

Ian Pryce

Treated as schools

Since FE was handed to the Department for Education in 2016, Pryce believes the government has treated colleges “too much like schools”.

Reclassification “seals a change to treating us like a big school”, whereas under incorporation colleges were treated as “small universities, which we are”.

He points out that contrary to perceptions, most college students are not 16 to 18; “the average age is about 40”. And whereas schools average 400 students, colleges have about 10,000.

He credits education secretary Gillian Keegan and skills minister Robert Halfon with being “certainly on [FE’s] side”. But nowadays, he believes that “almost doesn’t matter” because if the Treasury says no, “that’s the end of the game”.

Pryce also believes that Keegan’s own, relatively positive experience of having done some form of an apprenticeship has led her to overly focus on that agenda. “The danger that if you know too much about a subject then you don’t take in some alternative views.”

He questions what the government “really wants” from colleges now, other than “just giving employers what they want” which fills him with disillusionment. “I don’t know what that means anymore.”

Possible benefits?

Pryce reluctantly admits there could be upsides to reclassification. One is “the possibility” colleges could be brought under similar overall teacher pay thresholds as schools, which would mean more generous pay awards.

Staff salaries were “cut back hard” under independence, and Pryce believes lecturers are now “fed up” with seeing their school counterparts being paid £10,000 more than them.

Another potential upside is that reclassifying colleges as public assets distinguishes them from private training providers, which he says are not “assets for the community” in the way that colleges are.

“Rightly, they can pick the things they want to do, whereas we should always serve the community first…therefore we should be funded differently. Being classified differently to private training providers might help us with that.”

Ian Pryce

Fears over reclassification

But Pryce believes there are many more downsides to reclassification.

As he understands it, the purpose behind it was to give the government the power to dismiss a college principal and governing body. But it has become a “classic sledgehammer to crack a nut” with its myriad of other consequences.

Pryce knows of one college group that has recently taken a loan from the government under the new public sector borrowing arrangements, but has “only been given enough to keep afloat”, creating a “financial headache”.

Banks used to ensure colleges were borrowing more than they needed. Now colleges will have to put in bids to the government for capital funding. Pryce warns it will be the bigger colleges with established bid teams – like his own group – that will benefit, rather than those with the greatest need.

There is also a “fear of interference” from civil servants who “generally don’t stay in jobs very long”, which will lead to less innovation.

And time-pressed civil servants will be hard-pushed to respond to all the requests that will come from colleges. After all, colleges now have to seek permission for severance packages, and for ex gratia payments, even of small amounts, which “slows things down” and  “takes away that freedom to manage”.

Pryce also fears the government is not putting “anything like enough aside to even maintain” the £10 billion of college assets, which means some buildings could become “unsafe” over time with neglect.

College finance teams are also now facing the dilemma of how to treat surpluses that are “not really ours”. And there is the “tricky” challenge of bringing accounting timelines in line with the government’s.

He also questions whether the sector will be able to retain quality governors. “What’s the attraction of being a governor, if almost every decision you want to make has to be rubber-stamped by department officials who perhaps don’t know much about FE?”

Principal changes

As he departs after 24 years as chief, Pryce cannot imagine any college leader today being able to stay in the job for as long as he has.

“If I started now I would have been sacked about three times on the way! People were pretty forgiving. You don’t get many chances to make mistakes any more.”

But he leaves the sector with his reputation still high – and his musical talents noted (he once performed Dolly Parton’s Jolene dedicated to Justine Greening, the former education secretary).

The £10 million budget he had when he started is now £80 million, and his 250 staff list has grown to 1,800. Pryce found colleges “absolutely fascinating” when he started out, and still does today. “I’ve always liked being in the centre of stuff.”

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