Capitalism has decimated the FE sector, rapidly transforming a public service into a profit-spinning enterprise. An employee from an unnamed Further Education consultancy explains how this has been allowed to take place.
Over the last 25 years, further education in England has undergone a rapid process of commercialisation. Whilst the intrusion of market forces into University campuses has rightly drawn condemnation, a similar development has gripped FE colleges, where the impacts have been equally profound.
Commercial buzzwords have entered the college lexicon: Principals are CEOs; students are customers; colleges are corporations. The guiding purpose of FE has been to use education to help the most disadvantaged in society, now that purpose is at risk of becoming extinguished in the pursuit of wealth.
Market forces were first unleashed on the sector in 1992 when colleges were freed from Local Authority control. Whatever can be said about the former arrangement, and many concerns can be justifiably expressed, it did at least ensure local democratic accountability over how a college was run.
The system that subsequently emerged gave colleges new powers to incorporate as independent companies; in turn their funding was cut and they were forced to generate increased income from the private sector.
In this brave new world, colleges were free to compete against universities and private training providers in a burgeoning skills and employment marketplace. Unfortunately, the effect on many colleges was devastating: smaller colleges closed, over twenty thousand staff were forced out of their jobs, workloads increased and pay and conditions deteriorated.
But perhaps more profoundly, it also meant that publicly funded services that had previously been under democratic control could now be taken over by private training providers, who, like any other business, were accountable to their investors—not to learners or communities.
Some colleges, however, could thrive in this new environment by wholeheartedly embracing the logic of the private sector. College leadership underwent a massive “professionalisation” as private sector managers were recruited at an astonishing speed. In turn, salaries for senior managers increased exponentially. Back in 1989 a principal’s average salary was about 2 times the rate of a college’s highest paid lecturer. A few years later that ratio had more than doubled.
This imbalance has reached epic proportions, typified by the recent revelation that the CEO of City and Guilds (a multinational “super college” company) receives an annual salary of over £690,000. These are huge sums, especially at a time when salaries for administrative and teaching staff have flatlined.
The commercialisation of FE demonstrates how capitalism causes the behaviours and norms of the market to bleed into all areas of society. When this occurs, we witness the corruption of public institutions as profit becomes the principle metric for determining success. Education, as a vital public resource, should be free of this conflation, but unfortunately it is not.
Since incorporation, colleges have been faced with a very stark reality: either they embrace the logic of the market, or they wither away and die. Any college unable to materially or morally compete, will either close, or be forced into a merger.
Whilst it is supposed that this competition creates more choice for learners, it actually produces the opposite. It leads to a homogeneity in provision as colleges are incentivised to offer the most lucrative courses ‒ for instance, Humanities courses are scrapped in favour of those that cater to industry. In short ‒ the market determines which courses are valuable and which are not.
It is then no wonder that apprenticeships and creating strong employer relationships are now big priorities for colleges: the desires of industry are inherently more valuable than those of learners and staff.
This competition has also led to the emergence of “super colleges”, which are able to centralise power and influence by offering a standardised, employer-focused curriculum. In the same way that we observe concentrations of corporate power in other sectors of society, we now see the emergence of huge multimillion-dollar college corporations that operate across huge geographies and restrict choice in many areas.
The Tories have been clear about their intentions to create “fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient providers” and their desire to “rationalise” the existence of smaller colleges by trying to force them to merge with larger ones. The impact of these changes is especially profound for people in rural, non-metropolitan communities where many smaller, community-focused colleges have been forced into mergers with larger more powerful providers.
Austerity and adult education
These changes form part of a broader political agenda to shift the burden of funding of further education away from the state. This is demonstrated by huge reductions in the level of government funding made available to colleges from the Skills and Education Funding agencies. This funding has reduced year on year since 2011 and there is no indication that it will ever return to pre-austerity levels.
These funding reductions have disproportionately hit adult education, where a covert attempt has been made to displace the cost of education onto learners. In recent years, student loans have been introduced to offset the costs of FE based adult education. Now 19+ learners are forced into accepting student loans to study on most further education courses. If the current trajectory is maintained, it seems likely that public funds will soon no longer be used to support adult education at all.
The starkness of the situation is acutely summarised by the Association of Colleges who warn that: “Adult education and training in England will not exist by 2020 if the government continues with its swathe of cuts.”
The government has slashed the adult education budget by 24% in 2015/16 with plans for further severe reductions in the years ahead. If this pattern continues it will be no time at all before a similar loan based model is applied to all learners and the notion of publicly funded college education disappears completely.
For an end to the marketisation of education – fight for socialism!
The growing acceptance of private sector values and significant reductions in public funding present an existential threat to further education in the UK. The state has taken a back seat and now colleges are able to operate without restraint. For some colleges this is great, but it creates a hugely unequal system, leaving countless numbers of community based colleges unable to compete.
To be clear, the further education system before incorporation was no panacea, but inspired by the efficiency and wisdom of markets, a political decision was made to unleash forces that could not be contained. The impacts that this has had on learners and college staff has been devastating. Education needs to be accessible, transparent, democratic and publicly funded; but these notions need to be fought for.
The changes to further education have largely passed by unnoticed; they occur slowly, almost imperceptibly. Until one day, without noticing, a claim on a shared inheritance disappears, never to return again. It is capitalism that demands this, and only socialism can ensure that those who would otherwise fall through the cracks in society ‒ namely the poor, adult learners, and ethnic minorities ‒ can educate themselves and develop skills for a better life.
By Stephen Burr, Marxist Student Federation supporter.