New government proposals to take ownership of colleges

An article appeared in FE week reporting that the government is about to release a white paper on the future of Further Education. It says that the government is planning to take control of the sector.

It quotes Gavin Williamson saying:

“The FE sector is playing a pivotal role in making sure more people can access the high-quality education and training they need to progress and will support our economic recovery following the Covid-19 outbreak. Our reforms will build on and strengthen the excellent work already happening across the country and will ensure the FE sector is at the heart of every community.”

UCU has for a long time campaigned to end incorporation and to end the marketisation of the sector by bringing it back under democratic public ownership. Whilst we should welcome the reported move to bring the sector back into public ownership, we should be cautious about how the move is being framed by government.

The government is frustrated that their drive to merge colleges, driven by the FE commissioner and the area reviews, has not brought about the ‘revolution’ that the government believed they would. Many colleges are on the verge of financial collapse and are not in a position to play the central role in the post-coronavirus recovery. The government wish to point the finger of blame at incompetent college management.

These colleges were on the brink of collapse before the outbreak of Covid-19. Years of historic under-funding has led to 25,000 jobs to disappear, over one million adult education places have gone and wages cut by 27% in less than a decade. It is this under funding that has severely restricted colleges’ ability to place education and training at the heart of our communities.

It is successive governments’ market led reforms that have brought many colleges near to collapse. Of course, there has been disastrous management decisions that have made a bad situation a lot worse. But the real problem with the leadership is not their incompetence at making a marketised system work but their failure to oppose and publicly resist the market and competition in education.

UCU look forward to seeing the government’s proposals for the future of further and adult education. The sector will be vital to enable the recovery in a post covid-19 world. Fears of mass unemployment in particularly hitting the young with estimates of up to 600,000 without work will lead to another lost generation.

Our young people deserve and demand better.

Bringing the sector back into public ownership must be driven and shaped from the bottom up if this transformation is to be successful.

UCU should propose the following:

  1. All sector unions to be invited to discuss government’s plans to bring back the sector into public ownership.
  2. That the marketised model must be replaced by a collaborative and planned approach.
  3. For public ownership of the sector to work it must be properly funded over a five-year period to allow proper planning.
  4. That the educational and training needs must reflect the multifaceted ambitions of our students and not the narrow skills agendas of employers.
  5. Call for a guarantee of access to funded full-time education, paid training and employment for all.

 Sean Vernell UCU FEC Vice chair


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