Refine Your Search
Refine Your Search

FE is in a 'fragile state' says minister - what does 'fragile' mean?

16 September 2015 Candidate Blogs

We ask, is this war time code for a post 16 education funding crisis?

Fragile in this context is what a business would call cash flow. In other words the finances are in a fragile state.

To get this ‘fragile’ situation sorted the Government wants all colleges to take part in area-based reviews.  Post 16 reviews will be taking place throughout the country with the overall aim to get them into better shape or ‘more robust’, less ‘fragile’.

What that shape will look like is yet to be decided but what is clear is that the government sees this as a money saving exercise and not as a funding crisis; any further money will not, at this stage, be coming from Government coffers.

To be fair the Government is not looking to cut current funding, although there have been cuts already; what is clear is that they want funding better managed with better education outcomes; they want cake.

What has been acknowledged so far is that post 16 colleges, in general, are in a pickle and the ‘fragile’ talks and area reviews give an indication to the strategic mind-set behind recent activities.

On the table as an outcome of the reviews is curriculum rationalisation; restructuring is not ruled out and bubbling in policy background is talk of a specific strategy for technology, more local control and an education emphasis that leads to employment. All good you say, but, here’s the big one, there will no doubt be compromises.

Outcomes may lead to Government intervention and that could be significant for some colleges.

Furthermore the ‘fragile’ focus is in truth about money and Government is not envisaging any more, this is not the purpose of the exercise but they do want support from businesses through local partnerships.

An overall assumption from the area reviews is that colleges will be saving money and thus any change will be funded from future surplus from the savings, local business partnerships and local authorities.

Local authorities will be expected to provide money too from their skills budgets so colleges can make the changes.

What could this mean for post 16 colleges

The overwhelming message taken from recent talks and announcements is ‘change’. That change will depend on the catchment area that the college is in, their combined curriculum and their student population.

If it involves curriculum rationalisation then compromise will have to be made here.

Some courses cost more than others and the combined effect of a rise in total cost can dramatically change the marginal cost of a student and college finances so the cost accountants will no doubt move in to look at the marginal cost of all student courses and how economies can be made.

Whole area strategies will be under discussion looking at how collective colleges can achieve synergies. The emphasis on technology will see technology specific institutions set up where economies of scale can be gained thus saving other colleges the huge investment in IT.

Examples are already being made across the country; in North East Norfolk and North Suffolk five colleges are collaborating following a review earlier this summer. Between them they were facing a deficit of over £1.3m. The financial challenge was clear but when this was combined with a falling college age population in the area it became a ‘no brainer’ decision to merge.

The same with three colleges in east London that were facing £3m in cuts and accumulated annual losses of £4m they too decided to join forces.

Change is always unsettling; for staff, for students, for parents and for the local community who rely on their college. Often decisions are taken within a vacuum without taking into account the impact on travel, access, accommodation and recruitment. The latter as Morgan Hunt knows only too well, being a major consideration for any college.

As all reviews need to be in by March 2017 there is much to think about and debate on how the ‘fragile’ nature of colleges can be resolved and the compromises to be made. Collaboration is what is being sought and a vision on what the area needs as a whole, and as a review can be triggered by a proactive proposal it’s worth getting involved.


Latest News & Views