Friday, 10 May 2013

Further & Higher Education Bill introduced

"Uh...huhuhuhuh....You said 'laid'."
Alright, I'm a little late coming to this but that's how the blog works.

The latest piece of legislation laid in front of the Assembly is another one of those technical laws dealing with administration and governance. You know, the sort of law that makes you glad you're not a politician or working for one of them.

Introduced by Education Minister Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda) last Monday, the Further and Higher Education (Governance and Information) Bill will address issues surrounding finance and governance of Welsh further education colleges, as well as some student finance matters.

The draft Bill itself is available here, and the explanatory memorandum here.

What the Bill aims to address

The Bill intends to "enhance the autonomy and decision-making abilities of Further Education Institutions" by reducing the number of central controls held by the Welsh Government, as well as allow data regarding student grants/loans held by HMRC to be shared with Welsh Government Ministers (or bodies working on their behalf like the Student Loans Company).

Large chunks of the Bill are modifications to existing UK legislation including :
  • Further & Higher Education Act 1992
  • Teaching & Higher Education Act 1998
  • Learning & Skills Act 2000
  • Education Act 2002
  • Learning and Skills Measure 2009

Regulations governing Further Education Institutions (FE Colleges) and Further Education Corporations

Here, the draft Bill intends to:
  • Give colleges the power to modify/replace their own governance arrangements, subject to minimum requirements outlined by Welsh Ministers. It'll include setting out the roles of key members of staff and the inclusion of student and staff governors on governing bodies.
  • Give further education corporations the power to dissolve themselves or merge with another body – including the transfer of assets, liabilities, property etc. This would be subject to published proposals and statutory consultations, the requirements of which are outlined in the Bill.
  • Give colleges the power to borrow, as well as develop alternative subsidiary running arrangements – i.e limited company, charitable status – without requiring a Welsh Government rubber stamp.
  • Give colleges more freedom when planning 14-18 "local curricula". They'll only have to follow "guidance" issued by Welsh Ministers from time to time.
  • Remove powers from the Welsh Ministers to :
    • Appoint members to college governing bodies
    • Amend/replace college governance arrangements
    • Regulate higher education (degree-level) courses provided by further education colleges
  • However, it will allow Welsh Ministers to intervene and forcefully dissolve a college corporate body if they are being "mismanaged" or "failing", as stipulated in the Further & Higher Education Act 1992.

Supply of data regarding student loans and grants

Here, it replaces "the state" with "Welsh Ministers" (in the Teaching & Higher Education Act 1998) as a body HMRC will be obligated to provide information to with regard student loans and grants.

Student finance and support is a devolved matter, but HMRC are not currently legally obliged to provide information to Welsh Ministers. The change in the Bill means Welsh Ministers (or those bodies/people "working on behalf of the Welsh Ministers") will be included.

It'll mean the Welsh Government (or its associated bodies) will be able to see information on household incomes (important in means testing for student finance) without applicants going through the trouble of providing that evidence themselves.

Cost and Benefits

The "regulatory" aspects – expanding FE college governance powers etc. - will have no costs at all, except those relating to introducing the legislation itself presumably.

One option on the table was to create a "funding council" for FE colleges similar to HEFCW, which would've cost ~£1.8million per year. Obviously the Bill – if it becomes law as it is – will simply give FE colleges more powers themselves in that area instead.

On the student finance side, the Welsh Government could have established a "manual" way of processing household incomes for means testing. The Student Loan Company will have had to employ more staff and would've spent more on correspondence - in total running towards £87,000 per year.

Instead, the Bill's provisions mean that the Student Loan Company will use similar processes used in England. That'll only cost around £30,000 per year, because household income checks will be done automatically without applicants needing to send the info themselves.

Overall impressions

On the surface, this looks pretty uncontroversial legislation, merely tweaking existing arrangements. It's for more eagle-eyed AMs and the committees to decide if that's the case.

I would be concerned that relaxed rules could lead to FE colleges taking more risks than they perhaps should on the financial side of things, or over-stretching in terms of possible mergers. On the whole though, I think it's fairly reasonable.

I'm in favour of FE colleges becoming the sole provider of post-16 education in the long-term – coupled with significant changes to 16-18 qualifications. That's because they'd provide a university-style/adult experience without the expense of going to university itself, as well as a wider range of courses for students because they have the facilities to provide them.

One of the intriguing provisions is a relaxing of regulations on higher education qualification in FE colleges. That could – in theory - result in more degree-level courses, or even degrees themselves, being provided by local colleges (in partnership with universities). That already happens to a certain extent, but it could improve higher education access in parts of Wales that don't have universities "nearby", but do have big FE colleges – Bridgend, Merthyr, Pembrokeshire and Blaenau Gwent for example.

I was initially worried about the student loan data-sharing due to privacy concerns. Apparently though, none of the data would enable individuals to be identified, so there's perhaps no reason for alarm there.

I think on the surface that's going to be the only "controversial" part of this law, as well as the prospect of FE colleges being given the freedom to set up as charitable bodies.

Hmm, charitable bodies. It's not a direct comparison, but that's sounds a bit...."New Labour". A bit...."City Academy", doesn't it?


  1. I am in favour of Tertiary education colleges, most schools are too small to carry out six form functions - limited range of courses etc and I see it as an extension of the comprehensive principle so Id like to see FE colleges running 16 - 18 education....

  2. Thanks, Cibwr.

    It's already (technically) happening in some parts of Wales - Merthyr & Blaenau Gwent - but the move is meeting opposition as people are perhaps understandably attatched to the idea of a school sixth form. Neath Port Talbot already does, or course, and they also have some of the best performances at A-Level in Wales.

    There's the issue of what would happen to post-16 Welsh Medium and faith education, but I think you could probably just select a WM or Faith secondary as a "sixth form centre" to solve that.

  3. I wouldn't like to FE colleges as the only form of post 16 education, everyone is different and a one size fits all solution would not be ideal.

    I accept the point about them providing a university style/adult learning experience, although I'm not entirely convinced how that workd in practice.

    The main benefits of a university education are the experience of living independently and building up a network of friends and coleagues who will help you future career, and of meeting people from radically different backgrounds. The vast majority of FE students live with their parents, and continue to socialise with the same people they went to school with so they don't gain either of these benefits or the soft skills involved.

    I also suspect that 6th forms are better at teaching the academic subjects than FE colleges, and may also be better for 16 year olds who are less mature (and there's nothing wrong with that). These are also the very students who are more likely to go on to University at 18 so they would not miss out on the 'adult style' education.

    In short I suppose I'm saying that we need a mix of 6th forms and FE colleges while being aware of the strengths and limitations of each. Different horses for different courses as they say.

  4. Re your comment at 09:55 what about those people who would benefit from a 6th form education but who are not religious (or who are consideres unacceptable to the religion involved) or who don't speak Welsh?

  5. Thanks, Anon.

    It already works in Neath Port Talbot. None of the mainstream English-medium secondary schools has a sixth form, and all post-16 education is provided by NPT College. The only schools that maintain sixth forms are Ysgol Ystalyfera and a Catholic secondary in Port Talbot.

    As I noted, NPT College has one of the best A-Level pass rates in Wales, and they offer up to 40-odd A-Level and equivalent courses in a way a secondary school simply wouldn't be able to do. I'm not sure precisely how teaching such large groups works in practice, but I presume it's not that different from sixth forms, just without the - for want of a better description - "stuffiness" of a school environment.

    We also need to remember that FE Colleges often have adult students studying things like PGCEs and higher technical qualifications. So I think FE colleges would be a good intermediate step between the "independence" of university and the "rote learning" and formal structure of school.

    If there was a wholescale switch to post-16 education in colleges, then I presume there wouldn't be any state non-faith based, English-medium sixth forms for them to attend. I don't think sixth forms are going anywhere any time soon though, so anything I say is pure conjecture.