City Regions and FE: not much power and even less responsibility

14 May 2018 03:26 PM

Blog posted by: Mick Fletcher, FE Policy Analyst, Monday 14 May 2018.

One of the reasons that FE policy making in England is in such a mess may be the repeated failure of those in power to clearly define terms.  I’ve written in a previous NCFE blog (June 2017) about the lack of any shared understanding, still less a clear definition, of what is meant by technical education. A similar charge can be laid against the so-called “Review of Post-18 Education and Funding”; despite its title it’s really only about higher education and misses out whole chunks of post-18 FE and adult provision both in and outside colleges.

This faulty labelling may explain why there is no apparent connection between the review and the ongoing discussions on how best to devolve much of the adult FE budget to eight city regions – a decision apparently taken some time ago in a parallel universe.  One might have thought that some of the problems that the post-18 review tries to wrestle with – how to make provision more accessible to all, for example, or how to develop more of the skills that employers need – could be addressed through seriously ambitious devolution.  The devolution ship has already sailed however and it’s clear that local government is not allowed anywhere near higher education (the ‘wide range’ of interested parties to be consulted in the post-18 review is defined as ‘students, employers and institutions’!)

Not that it would be the best idea to add further complications to the existing proposals for devolution of the Adult Education Budget (AEB), implementation of which is already running 12 months behind schedule and may yet be further delayed.  It is still not clear, for example, that what gets ‘devolved’ to the Mayor of Manchester will be what is spent in Manchester, or what is spent on Manchester citizens wherever they enrol. What is clear however is that even in that half of England where local government is trusted to have any role at all it will not be a substantial one, neither in terms of power nor responsibility.

To start with, local government will not be given control over the apprenticeship budget despite being potentially large employers and providers.  The levy will be managed nationally, as will the student loans budget that funds an increasing share of adult FE provision.  It is difficult to see the city regions being given power to override national entitlements to free provision such as for basic skills. What their role is likely to come down to is some involvement in ‘commissioning’ adult FE, probably shackled to a discredited procurement model that the ESFA itself has had difficulty in managing.

Some commissioning role, which would enable local dignitaries to seek less provision for hairdressing and more for engineering, might be an outcome that could satisfy the administrators and local busybodies but would probably be a bad deal for FE and for colleges.  Local government has a lot to offer FE but second guessing the recruitment practices of individual institutions is not part of it. 

In the past, and still in other countries, local government invested in FE. English cities and counties were engaged with the strategic direction of the sector but in return applied their own resources to meet capital and revenue needs.  They built the colleges (and indeed the polytechnics, the legacy of whose role is one of the principal concerns of the post-18 review).  A token part in somebody else’s procurement process is not wrong just because it gives too little influence, but because it demands too little commitment in return. 

The FE sector has always had a higher profile locally than nationally where it is constantly in danger of being overshadowed by schools and higher education policy – the post-18 review itself is a case in point. Communities however do still take pride in ‘their’ colleges, though the steady reduction in the number of institutions through mergers to create multi-site monsters must represent a real threat to such identification.  A serious devolution deal that gave local government a key role in funding and shaping FE provision and required it to make difficult choices about investment would be in the long term best interests of the sector and its students.