Two Views. You Choose: Is college specialisation in FE a good thing?

Friday 09-10-2015 - 13:52

In the lead up to our annual Zone Conferences, NUS is highlighting the key themes from each of the five Zones. For this Two Views You Choose piece, we’re exploring the debate around whether the specialisation of colleges is a good thing. Agree? Disagree? Have your say by voting in the poll at the bottom of the page.

Further Education is changing once again. The government’s Post-16 Education and Training Review announced this summer will dramatically reduce the numbers of providers as they come together to plan out “fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient providers” across England and Wales.

We know that tighter budgets as a result of many years of cuts to FE is why we’re here. But, does this present an opportunity for the student movement to redefine what we expect from our education?  

The Further Education Zone want to debate and discuss our view of the future for FE in a time of massive change and this debate centres on the specialisation of colleges within the Further Education sector, ultimately posing the question ‘is this a good thing or a bad thing?’.

Is college specialisation a good thing?

- Tony Payne, Student Activities Manager, Canterbury College and Chair of Learner Voice Practitioner Network in England

At the heart of FE is the aim to train people in trades and vocation skills. You went to college to safely learn a trade and then have a pretty clear route to employment.  Firms would be integral to the learning, with staff leaving the shop floor and moving into the classroom.  After incorporation in 1993, colleges diversified to grow and chase funding. They moved away from their core business and ran courses that were either popular or met a need in the local job market. This has not been a great success – large general further education colleges have not improved the level of skills in the UK. There are fewer Grade One colleges than ever before and success rates have not risen very much. 

Going back to basics and looking at what colleges do really well will ensure that the teaching is outstanding and that quality improves. It’s a basic business principle to stick to what you do well and to not dilute your product. Nando’s only sell chicken and they do it really well – they don’t sell sausages (they sell steak rolls but I bet no-one ever orders them!).  Big colleges lose sight of how to inspire, and students too easily become statistics. Having a clear focus and sense of purpose in colleges will help the UK invent the next iPhone or maybe find a way to develop cleaner energy. Being outstanding at one thing, rather than satisfactory at everything, is the way forward.

- A Learner Voice Practitioner from Wales

Regionalisation could potentially have an effect on fair access to education. Course provision which is presented on originally separate campuses in local areas pre-merger could see similar courses merged and only be taught on one campus to save costs. This may mean that to access their course some students who would have previously accessed it in their local area may have to travel long distances. This could be on poor/crowded transport systems which do not have the infrastructure to support the increased volume of people. Merged colleges may also be based across different council regions so students may have different transport provision and different levels of subsidy which could affect parity of experience for many students.

Therefore, many students could end up travelling large distances to access the course they want to do or end up doing a less suited course because it is easier/cheaper to access. This may then have a knock on affect for students completing their courses as those students who are on a less well-matched course or have longer, more difficult journeys to access it are less likely to stay in education. There is a huge case against specialisation if you consider its effect on choice for students and access to education. Learners with disabilities, caring responsibilities or even those who have to rely on evening jobs to pay for their education will be severely affected, increasing the attainment gap between those who can afford their education and those who cannot.

Is college specialisation a good thing?
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