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The Chartered Institute has lost its way

It is sad but perhaps not surprising that the Chartered Institute for Further Education should appear to be in trouble as recently reported in FE Week. Whether or not its current funding issues can be resolved, no-one would claim that in the six years since it was conceived it has made a substantial impact on the sector, and still less on wider society. I set out reasons for concern about the approach taken by the Institute as long ago as January 2013 (also in FE Week) and in the light of its current problems, it seems right to revisit them.

The central issue affecting the Institute is that it was conceived of as little more than a quality mark. Its website announces that membership is a “mark of excellence which shows potential new students and employers that an education provider is a centre of supreme quality”. Yet FE is hardly short of quality marks, most of which, like ‘Centres of Vocational Excellence’ or ‘Investors in People’ are gathering dust in the darker corners of college foyers. If people look at anything when choosing a college they look at Ofsted grades, but since very few people outside the largest urban centres have any real choice in where to go, it’s all a bit academic. There’s no use telling someone in Bristol that they can find ‘supreme quality’ in Bedford.

There was however, and possibly still could be, a distinct and useful role for the Institute in providing a rationale for funding some institutions through Grant in Aid rather than through contract. Providing grant-in-aid recognises institutional autonomy; public funds are given in order to support the institution’s own programme rather than requiring it simply to deliver what has been determined by the funding body. It’s a principle that underpins university funding and, though imperfectly understood, (even it sometimes seems by DfE officials) it still formally applies to FE colleges.

In recent years we’ve tested to destruction the idea that the best way to deliver public services is through quasi markets in which institutions who are focussed primarily on their own financial survival compete for the right to deliver centrally prescribed programmes. As the perverse incentives generated by such a system become ever more apparent, there is growing recognition of the need for genuine local autonomy in deciding what to deliver as well as just how to deliver it. Ultimately local determination of priorities can not only be more sensitive and efficient than the centralised approach but can help legitimate what will always be contested decisions on where to focus scarce resources.

Allocating public resources through grant-in-aid requires that those institutions in receipt of grant have some democratic legitimacy of their own. Their governance needs to reflect the key constituencies and communities that they serve, and their constitutions need to enshrine a civic purpose. This is why institutions set up for profit should continue to be funded via contract however excellent the quality of their work - their first loyalty has to be to their shareholders rather than the wider public good. Most colleges on the other hand (like local authorities) are still public bodies and seen as community assets.

In this context, there’s a clear role for an organisation like the Chartered Institute. It should be to admit to membership only those organisations whose constitution and governance demonstrate clear and robust local accountability and can justify the autonomy that grant-in-aid funding allows. Institutions other than colleges could be admitted if they met the same criteria, but the excellence or otherwise of teaching would be left as a separate matter for Ofsted and others to handle.

If access to grant funding was dependant on membership, the Institute would rapidly generate sufficient members to become self-funding; and the sector and society would benefit from sustained support for the devolution of decision making in FE: a clear win-win.


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