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Out of the frying pan..?

July 5, 2019

out of frying pan

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Another dispute between Scottish further education (FE) colleges and the largest teaching union, EIS-FELA, has recently come to an end. A series of strikes had resulted from disagreements that dated back to a previous dispute over the harmonisation of salaries, which ended 2 years ago. During the last period of strike action I wrote this post, from a lecturer’s perspective, about the state of FE and how the sector had ended up in the situation it’s in, and it seems that there’s been little or no improvement in industrial relations since then.

I feel quite sad when I look back at what’s happened to the Scottish FE sector over the past 6 years or so. The regionalisation process has led to Scotland having fewer, but much larger, colleges, and recent policies such as Developing the Young Workforce have redefined the purpose of FE, shifting the focus away from providing lifelong learning opportunities to local communities and instead towards the reduction of youth unemployment. Of course, I’m all in favour of reducing youth unemployment, and the provision of vocational training for school leavers has always been an important role for the FE sector, but the approach taken by the current Scottish government has been one that hands power to corporate industry, requiring colleges and young people to meet employer needs, rather than prioritising the needs of young people and the communities they belong to (I previously wrote about this here). The SNP’s (surprisingly?) neoliberal approach to FE policy has dominated the sector so much that it has led to the decimation of part-time and non-vocational courses, with colleges being pushed into replacing them with full-time, accredited courses that people with barriers to learning such as childcare or existing work commitments are unable to access. The need to address the “employability agenda” within programme content, to increase the focus on the attainment of qualifications, and to use post-course employment as a measure of success (irrespective of the type of job students end up getting), have all increased the degree to which the FE sector is driven by performativity. To a large extent, college managers are now more concerned about making it look like they’re doing a good job than whether or not they actually are doing a good job.

To me, the most frustrating thing about Scottish FE’s prioritisation of employer-driven vocationalism at the expense of community-driven lifelong learning is the lack of resistance offered by college leaders. Anyone who knows a bit about education, and lifelong learning in particular, should be able to tell you how damaging human capital theory can be. For years now, the idea of conceptualising education as a means of developing the economy, and the resultant valuing of human beings in terms of their potential to contribute to economic growth, has been roundly criticised (see for example Coffield 1999 and Livingstone 2012). And yet, when the SNP decided to get a successful businessman to write an FE policy, and when that policy turned out to be unashamedly based on Human Capital Theory, college leaders simply accepted this policy uncritically and set about implementing it. They didn’t point out the damage it would inevitably cause in terms of equality of opportunity and access, particularly for more vulnerable members of society, nor did they (publicly at least) raise concerns about the increased workloads it would give college staff by enforcing changes to curriculum content and increasing the need for assessment and other forms of evidence-gathering.

I think there are probably two reasons why there was such little resistance from college leaders to the Scottish Government’s neoliberalisation of the FE sector. First of all, and rather unfortunately, most college leaders appear not to know that much about education. I know this is a strong claim, and I don’t have any hard evidence to back it up, but I’m guessing that none of them has taught a lesson in the past 10 years (perhaps longer), and most of them only ever taught for a short time before getting out of teaching and onto the management ladder. Some have never taught, coming to educational management from different routes such as financial management or student services. Educational management seems to exist as a career in itself, independent of ability to teach or knowledge about teaching, or understanding of what makes good educational practice. Of course, the gradual creep towards performativity (Ball 2003) has reduced the need for managers to actually know about teaching. As long as they can find ways to make the numbers look good, that’s all that matters.

A second reason (in my view) why college leaders have been unable to resist government policy is that, by accepting the jobs offered to them as principals of new, larger colleges, they effectively compromised their own positions. I’m not sure how explicitly it’s ever been stated, but if you find yourself in a new job as the leader of an institution that has just been reclassified as a public body, meaning it is now accountable to the government, and if this new job involves a massive pay increase, it can’t be very easy to then criticise that government – however damaging their policymaking might seem.

When politicians decide they want to impose daft ideas on a sector, what you expect from that sector’s leaders is for them to turn round and tell the government a)that it’s a daft idea and b)why it’s a daft idea. When the Scottish government decided to impose regionalisation and an employability agenda on colleges, a counter-argument from the college sector should have been relatively easy to present, given that the rationale for regionalisation was based on cost-cutting, and the rationale for Developing the Young Workforce was based on meeting economic targets: there wasn’t a single educational reason for doing either of these things. However, it appears that a lack of awareness among college leaders of basic educational principles and practices, and a lack of understanding of the damaging impact of new policy on vulnerable and hard-to-reach members of the community, coupled with the tacit obligation to accept government policy that was implied in their appointment, have made it impossible for college leaders to offer any resistance or present any alternatives.

Since regionalisation, then, college leaders’ inability (for whatever reason) to criticise policy has left them no choice but to implement it as instructed by the government, as controlled by the Scottish Funding Council (which awards government funding to colleges) and Education Scotland (which monitors educational “quality”). This has led to college leaders becoming increasingly distanced from college lecturers, who have to deal with the impact of these policy changes. It’s a tough gig being a college lecturer, especially if your ability to deliver programmes that students genuinely value, and which are based on sound pedagogy, is undermined by your own managers.

I no longer work in FE, and there is much about the sector that I miss, but in many ways I’m happy to be out of it. The Universities sector is certainly different in that people in positions of power actually know a lot about what education is (and/or should be) about. The awareness of philosophical principles underpinning educational theories, the societal impact of education and the role it can play in addressing inequality and promoting social justice, and the perils of implementing approaches to education that do not seek to play such a role, appear to be things that senior academics in universities know a lot about. My colleagues and managers are familiar with the principles of critical pedagogy, and the benefits of using education to develop criticality and capacities to engage with the transformative process of positive social development.

Still though, I’m beginning to notice a disconnect between what university leaders believe should happen and what is actually being implemented. I have yet to meet an academic who believes that it’s a good idea to apply neoliberal principles to education. And yet, the influence of neoliberalism on university governance is plain to see. The highly competitive international student recruitment market, the lure of funding from global corporations seeking to develop new products or legitimise existing products, and the performative culture required to embrace university rankings and other performance indicators and use them as marketing tools, all imply an acquiescence to the application of capitalist principles to education.

Being aware of what’s happening doesn’t make what’s happening any better. In fact, you could argue that it makes it worse. While the FE sector has been struggling through a leadership crisis, the entire HE sector seems to be experiencing more of an existential crisis: everyone’s aware that it’s become something it shouldn’t be, but nobody seems to know what to do about it. How do you respond to such a crisis? Accept? Adapt? Resist? I’m interested to see what direction it will go in. I hope it doesn’t end up splitting management from faculty though, as has happened in the FE sector.


Ball, S. (2003), ‘The Teacher’s Soul and the Terrors of Performativity’, Journal of Education Policy, 18:2, pp. 215-228.

Coffield, F. (1999), ‘Breaking the Consensus: Lifelong Learning as Social Control’, British Educational Research Journal, 25:4, pp. 479-499.

Livingstone, D.W. (2012), ‘Debunking the Knowledge Economy: The Limits of Human Capital Theory’, in D.W. Livingstone and D. Guile (eds.), The Knowledge Economy and Lifelong Learning: A Critical Reader, pp. 85-116, Rotterdam, N.L: Sense Publishers.


  1. I left one of the largest FE colleges a few years back just after regionalisation in one of the annual VS culls. My perspective is that making colleges bigger was a good thing since:
    1) there was needless duplication with multiple hubs from different FE colleges in County towns
    2) there was resultant spend on smartening up buildings some of which were looking tired & 60’s ish
    3) some dubious practices in certain Colleges needed to be addressed
    4) School – College links needed (continued) major improvement – this from my perspective is one of the major achievements of the re-org
    5) Similarly Unis & Colleges needed to be brought closer together as the former seemed to encroaching on FE territory – the SFC seemed to be biased that way

    As for your point about management separate from front line staff – was ever thus. I note that Faculty reorganisation, where I was, simply balanced the student numbers under each VP (or whatever they were called)

    • Hi Paul,
      Thanks for your comment. I agree that there have been some positive developments in the last few years, but I’m not sure if they result directly from the regionalisation process. Let me respond to each of your 5 points:
      1. You could of course regard different colleges offering the same courses as duplication, and some of it may well have been needless. However, if we’re talking about the same course being offered in two locations that are more than, say, a few miles apart, it’s only needless if we assume that all (potential) students are able to travel to a campus that’s further from their home. For students who rely on public transport, or those who have childcare commitments, closing a course in their nearest campus and expecting them to travel to a more distant campus often rules out the possibility of them attending.
      2. I think a lot of the new build and refurbishment of colleges resulted from funding commitments from the previous (Labour) government in Scotland: the college where I worked, for example, moved to a new building in 2007 and most of the Glasgow colleges also underwent makeovers before regionalisation and mergers. Yes, some further funding was made available during the regionalisation process, but this could have been made available anyway – there was no need to merge colleges in order to fund their refurbishment.
      3. Yes, there’s no doubt that there were some dodgy things going on in some colleges. Again though, I’m not sure how regionalisation helped to address these other than providing an excuse to change some of the personnel. Bringing colleges back under public sector control was surely the most effective way of addressing this problem, but this didn’t require colleges to be regionalised.
      4 and 5. I don’t have a problem with improving links between schools, colleges and universities. But what does concern me is the purpose of the partnerships and other forms of engagement that are being advocated. DYW is all about trying to ensure young people are able to serve the needs of the national economy. The onus is on education providers and young people themselves to conform to the demands of industry. I’m not comfortable with an educational policy that only values people in terms of their ability to contribute to the economy. This is a highly problematic approach to education – see the three references in my post.
      And yes, I know relations between management and lecturers in colleges have always been delicate, but I saw them breaking down even further during the 2017 dispute and it’s difficult to see how they can improve.
      Thanks again for commenting.


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