Is it time to let go of the failures and ego of incorporation?

11 Jun 2022, 18:00

The colleges sector can only challenge the problems of incorporation if it takes the uncomfortable step of building a united political stance, writes Stuart Rimmer

With the announcement last month that the Office for National Statistics was reviewing the classifications of colleges, there was an immediate flurry among the FE Twitterati.

Did it signal the shift back to pre-incorporation? Might colleges struggle to access to bank loans and financing?

Both concerns at this stage are false dawns.

Colleges have been under various classifications over the years (in 1993, 2010 and 2012) with little impact.

A classification change would affect how colleges report to government and borrow (with requests coming to colleges this week) but are unlikely to be too dramatic.

For me, the sector can use this moment to consider whether we should be lobbying to go back into the public sector and undo some of the legacy of incorporation.

To have this debate would require the setting aside of egos and a cold, hard look at the position of the sector and how it has fared since 1993.

What we currently have is very much the worst of both worlds.

Policies around the area-based review and, latterly, local skills improvement plans are in many ways an attempt to control curriculum.

What we currently have is the worst of both worlds

When combined with funding rules and defunding rules (look at T Levels or adult funding) then curriculum is already restricted under a national banner.

It is an illusion to think colleges have wide choice.

Advice and guidance has often been found lacking in schools and colleges, with confused and duplicated local offers supported by what Oxford University professor Ewart Keep would describe as ‘quasi-markets’.

Colleges are obsessed with growth, damaging their neighbours, to keep pace with rising costs rather than nationally seeking settlements on the funding required.

We individually negotiate staff contracts and pay rather than have a national settlement. We know school teachers are paid at significantly higher rates.

National shortages plague college departments, weakening provision or prompting staff to be poached.

Nationalisation would allow college lecturers security and stronger national bargaining through unions.

In this parliament we have seen increasing control via both the Department for Education through the skills for jobs white paper, and the Treasury through recent capital funding, which is channelled through DfE rather than through the ESFA or college “bailouts”.

Colleges could also get the financial benefits of VAT, of lower cost borrowing direct from government rather than at commercial rates (which takes away from students).

Large capital projects, and the generation of public assets, could be delivered direct from government with risks sitting centrally, rather than with individual colleges.

A postcode lottery of inherited building stock or debt at incorporation hampers colleges’ ability to spend to this day.

Colleges could move away from perverse incentives to protect cash and restrict resources to keep regulators at bay – and focus on student experience and curriculum.

Since 1993, are colleges funded better or worse comparatively?

Are we more focused on educational mission or more conflicted? Do colleges feel more or less stable?

Do staff feel more or less recognised? Have colleges had the capital investment required to meet 21st century industry needs?

Has curriculum kept pace pace with European counterparts? Is there better local collaboration?

Taking all this into account: has incorporation been a success?

To discuss, colleges would need to do some very uncomfortable things:

  1. Adopt a strong and clearer collective political position. In my experience the sector has been very reluctant, or fearful, of doing this: scared of upsetting paymasters or the market. We do lack the coherence of political thinking generated through debate.
  2. Set aside our egos, as any nationalisation would lead to a giving up of individual and institutional power for the collective good. This would be undesirable for many and no doubt come with painful unintended consequences.
  3. Accept a recalibration of curriculum within localities, and of college finances nationally (losing both debt and reserves).
  4. Seize the opportunities from centrally planned responses to HE collaboration and issues such as sustainability or energy.

I may, as ever, just be politically daydreaming. But the debate is worth having.

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  1. Bob Harrison

    Good point Stuart, I was a Vice Principal when Charles Clarke announced incorporation and a Principal for the transition. The motivation was political related to the poll tax and lobbying by a handful of power hungry Principals disgruntled with their LEAs. The opportunity cost has been enormous and the damage to the sector has been obvious. However since 2010 the infrastructure and resources of Local Authorities has been seriously degraded and a simple reversal to LA control impossible. However with devolved budgets and more of a regional focus it could be achievable .

    • First of all, I applaud Stuart Rimmer for writing this 3o years on from incorporation of colleges in 1992. Brilliant Stuart. It is right to articulate these points and initiate a debate.
      Secondly Bob, I am probably having a senior moment but I don’t remember Charles Clarke making any announcement. In fact was he a Labour MP in 1992? I may be wrong. I was a College Principal in 1992 – in fact I had been a College Principal since 1987 and so was very involved in both the run up to incorporation and the aftermath. There was no lobbying….as no one really has a clue what it all meant until FEFC came along, following Ken Baker’s embrace of FE and technical and vocational learning. Bill Stubbs was the architect of it all with Roger McClure (now Chair of Corporation at Capel Manor College).
      Enough of he past. I might be in my late 60’s but I’m still passionate about FE and would love the next decade to be the one that sees FE take off – at last! I really believe with people like Stuart leading and other supporting things could change.