Author: Dr John Graystone, CEO of ColegauCymru / CollegesWales. John Graystone has a regular column in the Western Mail, in which a version of this article first appeared on 25 April 2013.
A Landmark Year for FE
A number of dates are significant for further education (FE) colleges in Wales. They include: 1993 – when FE colleges became incorporated and the Further Education Funding Council for Wales was established; 1999 – the devolution of education policy to the new National Assembly for Wales; 2001 – the setting up of ELWa to fund post-16 education; 2006 – the transfer of functions from ELWa to the Welsh Government; and 2011 – the referendum which gave more powers to the Assembly to pass legislation impacting on education.
Now, 2013 is about to be added to the list. Next week, the Further and Higher Education (Governance and Information) Bill is due to be published. It will mark a positive change in the relationships between the Welsh Government and the colleges it funds.
‘Central government bodies’: what it means
This Bill has its origins in the decision in 2010 by the Office for National Statistics to change the classification of all FE colleges in the UK. Under the new classification, FE colleges would have been deemed to be ‘central government bodies’. Colleges’ accounts would be consolidated into those of Welsh Government with possible negative implications for the amount of funding the Welsh Government would receive through the Barnett formula; colleges’ surpluses, currently used to build reserves to invest in learners, equipment and buildings, would belong to the Government at year end and possibly be returned to the Treasury. Because of funding rules, college capital funding would be reduced. Colleges would lose many incentives to respond to the demands of the Welsh economy and serve the needs of their learners.
‘Not for profit institutions serving households’
In response, the Welsh Government, in its 2012 Further and Higher Education White Paper, stated that it: “recognises the maturity of the FE sector in Wales and believes that colleges, rather than government, are best placed to determine how the needs of learners and local communities should be met”. Colleges should retain the status they have had since 1993 – ‘not for profit institutions serving households’ (NPISH) – and their separate legal identity and autonomy. The Welsh Government did not wish colleges to become central government entities.
Colleges’ responsivenes: examples
If the Bill gains Royal Assent, colleges and ColegauCymru acknowledge that they will continue to work closely with the elected government of the day to ensure that the education agenda is met. Two recent examples demonstrate colleges’ responsiveness.
FE colleges reacted positively to the Welsh Government’s Transformation agenda through mergers and close partnerships with other educational institutions. In addition, following the 2011 Humphreys Review on college governance, many college governing bodies are now setting up membership bodies to improve local accountability. They are not required to do so, but the Welsh Government considers these initiatives as good practice.
In both examples, the Welsh Government set out a strong policy steer and colleges responded accordingly. Colleges did not need to be ‘central government entities’ to do so.
What will change?
The Bill, then, in securing colleges’ longstanding classification as ‘not for profit institutions serving households’, means in effect that not much will appear to change. Colleges will continue to work hard to raise standards; develop links with employers; improve progression routes for their learners onto other education or training courses or into jobs; and seek to increase bilingual and Welsh-medium learning opportunities. Colleges will continue to be subject to rigorous audit. The Minister will retain the right to intervene in cases of poor performance or mismanagement.
The FE sector is now very different from what it was in 1993 and much more mature. ColegauCymru is relieved that the Welsh Government is not proposing that civil servants micro-manage such complex organisations, some of which have turnovers of well over £60 million, and all of which provide a wide range of education and training services to an increasingly diverse population.
Colleges have welcomed the Welsh Government’s endorsement of colleges’ direction of travel and hope that the Further and Higher Education (Governance and Information) Bill will take forward the intentions set out in the White Paper. We believe the proposed reforms will be to the long term benefit of learners, communities and employers in Wales.