…but some are more equal than others
Equality of opportunity is very important in my college, as it is across the Further Education (FE) sector in Scotland. To ensure that everyone gets equal and fair access to courses, applications are always processed in date order. So someone who applies for a course tomorrow will have her application looked at before someone who applies the day after.
Seems fair enough, right? Except our application system is online, so in order to apply for a course you need to have Internet access, and the IT skills to negotiate the process of setting up a college account, complete the online form, submit it, and then, crucially, know how to log back in again to check the progress of your application. Also, if you are not a UK national you need to provide evidence of your status in the UK, to see whether you have legitimate residency for the duration of the course, and also to establish whether or not they need to pay fees. It takes longer to process the documents of non-EU nationals than it does for EU nationals, so applicants from outside the EU get stuck in that part of the system for a bit longer.
Still, if anyone is unable to complete their application they can come into the college and get some help setting up an account, filling in the form and submitting their residency documents. The system is therefore able to accommodate all applicants, even those with very basic IT or English language skills. So that’s OK then.
Except, there’s still this policy of processing applications in date order. This year, applications for our 2017-18 full-time programmes opened on the 24th January, at midnight. Later that morning I came into work and found that we had received 153 applications. By the end of the following day the number had gone up to 295. We only have places for 240 students. This doesn’t just tell us that our ESOL programmes are massively over-subscribed; it also demonstrates that a large number of people, who already knew when our applications were due to open, were sitting at a computer at midnight on the 24th January ready to get their applications in early.
OK, so we are getting applications from people who are tapping into a network of contacts, or who have the initiative and ability to do sufficient research to learn that they need to get their application in early. And if we process applications in date order then we are getting the keenest ones first, so that’s good. But is it? What about people who don’t have the language skills to complete an online application, or the IT skills to know that they need to fill one in in the first place? We run courses for students at elementary level, which assumes only a very limited knowledge of English, and which also develops very basic IT skills. It is impossible for such people to complete their application without support, so if they don’t have the social capital to give them the information and help they need, they are unlikely to be able to get an application in at all. Or if they do manage to come into the college to ask for information and get help with their application, what are the chances that they’ll do this within the first 48 hours of applications opening? People who don’t know in advance that they need to submit an application as soon as courses open, or people who (for whatever reason) are unable to submit an application within this narrow window, are highly unlikely to get a place on one of our programmes.
So, despite the semblance of equality that is implied in the ‘first come first served’ policy, our application process seems to be skewed in favour of people who are already pretty clued up on how the systems work here, who have access to a computer in the middle of the night, and who have the language and IT skills (or know someone who has these skills) to negotiate the online application process. Conversely, people who lack a practical support network, who don’t have Internet access at home, who don’t have the language or IT skills to submit an application and who also don’t know anyone who can help them with this – in short, people who are the most vulnerable and who need an ESOL course the most – are disadvantaged by the system to such an extent that their chances of getting a place on one of our full-time ESOL courses are significantly diminished.
Of course, our college could change its policy and be more pro-active about recruiting students from vulnerable or marginalised backgrounds. This would ensure we were serving local community needs and would also increase the diversity of our student population. But would such a change in approach actually serve the interests of the college? We are under pressure to deliver programmes that include as many accredited qualifications as possible, so the workload is heavy and the burden of assessment is high. We are expected to have high levels of retention and attainment on these programmes, so it’s in our interest to recruit students who have settled home lives, stable financial positions and, ideally, an educational background that allows them to exercise a fair amount of autonomy and learner independence. The way things are at the moment, our performance indicators are very good. Why would we want to jeopardise them by recruiting students whose status here is uncertain, or who have limited or fractured educational backgrounds, or who have barriers to learning that may impact on their ability to attend regularly?
Obviously, the answer to the above question is that people in these situations are particularly vulnerable, and if they don’t get access to an ESOL course soon they will become increasingly marginalised. But the FE sector is being engineered in such a way that people who need to access adult education the most are finding it harder to get into college courses. Part-time provision has reduced massively in recent years, and regional outcome agreements between colleges and the Scottish Funding Council seem to be geared towards developing the employability skills of 16-19 year-olds in order to meet industry needs. Pressure to run heavily accredited programmes, and to only recruit students who are likely to be successful, means colleges are less likely to take a punt on more vulnerable applicants – even if they do manage to submit an application on time.
Maybe this is all OK though. Colleges have always been places for vocational training, where people go to develop skills for employment in specific areas of industry. What’s wrong with training up young people to do the jobs that are currently available? And what’s wrong with courses that lead to accredited qualifications? And why should government funding be spent on students who are likely to either fail or drop out? And since when were colleges expected to just take anyone on their courses – why should that be an obligation?
There’s no doubt that colleges continue to play an important role in developing the vocational knowledge and skills of learners, providing them with accredited qualifications that allow them to become more successful, active participants in society. But the sector-wide obsession with Key Performance Indicators means that the people being recruited onto these programmes are people who are already pretty close to becoming successful, active participants in society. Those who have further to travel are unlikely to even navigate their way through the application process, never mind get a place on a course.
So what happens to the people who are unable to get places in college? Local authorities in Scotland offer less formal adult learning options through Community Learning and Development (CLD), but these organisations are incredibly stretched financially and, in the context of ESOL provision, the number of learners they can accommodate is a drop in the ocean compared to the number of people looking for ESOL courses. Some charity organisations offer ESOL as well, but this type of provision tends to be patchy, with an over-reliance on short-term funding that makes it difficult to strategically plan and deliver a sustainable, coherent curriculum.
It’s tempting for ESOL providers in Scotland to be smug about the fact that we have a national ESOL strategy and England doesn’t. But the funding that is allocated to meet the objectives of the strategy is insufficient, as demonstrated by the scale of unmet demand for ESOL across Scotland, and colleges (which are still responsible for the bulk of ESOL provision) are becoming increasingly pressured into providing ESOL programmes that are not appropriate for those learners who need it the most. An ESOL strategy is all very well, but only if the system is engineered to allow its objectives to be effectively realised. Otherwise we could end up with ESOL provision being in the same sorry state that it is in England.