The new academic year begins
If the past year has been the year of reviews and consultations, the coming year will be the period of recommendations and implementation. What does this hold for FE colleges in Wales?
The last few weeks have seen a distinct falling out between the UK and Welsh Governments over curriculum matters. The Secretary of State for Education is apt to make important policy announcements without consulting Welsh Ministers. The Welsh Government decision that the WJEC should re-mark the summer English Language GCSE papers for pupils in Wales underlined the different approaches of both administrations.
Consultations, there are a few…
All this places the ongoing Review of Qualifications, chaired by Huw Evans, in a quandary. Should the review team put all of this to one side and recommend that Wales stays close to England in its academic and vocational qualifications? Or should it take the Scottish road of recommending a high quality but separate approach?
An internal Welsh Government review is examining the delivery of higher education in FE colleges. The delivery of vocational higher education is core business for colleges. They specialise in running vocational and professional courses aimed at adult learners. Around 7% of HE students in Wales study at college rather than university. ColegauCymru considers that the Welsh economy could really benefit if there were an expansion of vocational higher education. There would be further benefits if the value of a vocational route: from an apprenticeship, a foundation degree and a higher technical degree were more widely understood.
A third review, the review of post-16 funding, is also due to report by Christmas. ColegauCymru has argued for a system that is more closely linked to the curriculum and that: can be understood by stakeholders; reflects government priorities; is transparent and fair; enables providers to plan ahead with more confidence; and encourages rather than discourages partnership. Very easy to say; much more challenging to solve.
The White Paper on Further and Higher Education argues for reducing bureaucracy for FE colleges in Wales and increasing their local accountability, with greater flexibility to respond more directly to local circumstances.
The Office for National Statistics, which is a non-devolved body, has, since 1993, classified FE colleges as ‘not for profit institutions serving households’ (NPISH). However, it recently decided to change their classification in the four UK nations to ‘central government public sector entities’, in recognition of the controls exercised by each Government on colleges.
If the Welsh Government takes no steps to reverse this reclassification, it would mean that all colleges’ income and expenditure would be included in Welsh Government budgets and colleges would not able to retain surpluses to invest in improving facilities. The amount of capital funding could be considerably reduced while the level of regulation increased.
The Welsh Government has decided that it wishes the reclassification to be reversed. It considers the FE sector mature, able and willing to take on a further degree of self regulation, and is proposing a Bill requiring them to demonstrate autonomy, leadership and responsiveness within the overall framework of Welsh Government policies. These changes would allow them to be NPISH once more.
Meanwhile, negotiations are continuing on a common contract for college staff agreed on a nationwide basis, and consultations are underway about the professional registration of FE lecturers, trainers and assessors.
The post-16 landscape continues to transform. The recent announcement of the proposed merger between Neath Port Talbot College and Coleg Powys brings the likely number of mergers since 2009 to eleven. There have been college to college mergers; mergers between universities and colleges; and mergers of colleges with training providers.
These developments are taking place within tight funding constraints. Further Education colleges await the next 12 months with a little apprehension but also with a strong commitment to improve their services continually.
A version of this article appeared in the Western Mail on 11 October 2012.