We’ve had a bit of clarity on the new IoTs, but Mick Fletcher doesn’t want to pop any corks just yet

The DfE’s latest on the Institutes of Technology doesn’t deserve three cheers – but it maybe warrants one and a half. The half is for the additional investment in FE: any extra cash is welcome though the sum is so small compared with the needs of the sector that a full cheer is out of the question.

More important is the confirmation that the new Institutes will build on existing infrastructure. After the Tories’ flirtation with focusing IoTs on universities, common sense has prevailed and the new institutions will promote rather than compete with existing colleges. It’s a small but sensible step.

Although it is a positive, results will likely still disappoint because the IoTs come freighted with unrealistic ambitions. There is more than just the normal hype associated with any loosening of the Treasury’s purse strings: people seem to expect that a small number of IoTs will lead a total transformation in higher technical and professional education (HTPE), will deliver a step change in the production of higher-level skills and revolutionise attitudes to sub-degree-level higher education. It won’t.

There’ll be little lasting change beyond a few plaques in college foyers

The sums involved are far too small. A total of £170 million spread over three years can do some good but no serious observer will see it as transformational. Moreover any impact will be further diluted by the approach we’re taking to develop IoTs: bids will be sought from consortia.

No doubt work is already under way to develop the “correct” type of consortium: a high-profile employer as figurehead, other employers promising support that will likely prove to be moral rather than financial, a big FE college coordinating the action as a hub and linked with a host of smaller colleges and training providers which reckon their best chance at a piece of the action is as a spoke. Once the hub has made a symbolic investment and each of the spokes has taken its modest cut, the impact will be minimal.

The DfE expects that, in addition to capital investment, any “transformation” will be driven by designating some institutions as “institutes”. This is likely to be undermined by the consortium approach. When one of the new national colleges, seen in some ways as prototypes for IoTs, describes itself as “a network of hubs” one can envisage how collaborative IoTs might develop. Like the Centres of Vocational Excellence promoted by the Learning and Skills Council some 15 years ago, giving them new titles will do no harm, but there’ll be little lasting change beyond a few plaques in college foyers and further confusion with nomenclature.

The DfE seems to envisage HTPE being delivered in a limited number of institutions with distinct specialisms – a set of monotechnics recruiting nationally. In practice HTPE is far more likely to thrive if it is available widely and on a part-time basis. It is not the case that the demand for most types of provision at levels four and five is geographically circumscribed.

Moreover, adopting a delivery model that looks very much like full-time undergraduate HE seems most likely to cause defection to the more benign funding and regulatory regimes of the HE sector. One has only to look at where almost all our art colleges and many agricultural colleges have gone in recent years to see the potential temptation.

Finally, the idea that to raise the status of technical and professional education requires a further stratification of institutions is a peculiarly English approach. It would be better to allow HTPE to grow naturally in a wide range of FE colleges than attempt to pick winners. To do so would add to the reputation of the sector as whole rather than give status to some at the expense of others.

Mick Fletcher is founder of Policy Consortium

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