Colleges are a particularly important means of increasing social mobility. Our research shows that, currently, pupils from schools in more disadvantaged areas are more likely to go on to further education than higher education. Colleges play a positive role by extending their opportunities and, for many, providing a route into higher education. The goal should be to widen the choice available to pupils whatever their background so that they can choose the education which best meets their needs. This requires measures which improve access to further and higher education and does not favour one over the other. It needs to start by addressing the attainment gap between schools in better-off areas and those in more deprived communities.
We think that too much central control is holding colleges back. This is not a new phenomenon, but the current post-16 Education Bill does nothing to reverse it.
Governments have for many years exerted control over the borrowing of colleges, their governance arrangements and have had the ability to close or merge colleges. Within the criteria applied across government, colleges are public bodies and fail to meet one of the key standards governing charities in Scotland – the Independence Test. Indeed, they are only deemed to be charities thanks to a specific Government exemption.
If the Scottish Government wants colleges to be charities, then why doesn’t it properly cement their charitable foundations? That is why we have suggested giving colleges a similar legal status to universities as fully independent charities, which could then enter into a contractual relationship with Government to deliver certain services. At the very least, the specific Government controls over borrowing and college governance should be removed as has already happened in England. This would give the 13 regional colleges in Scotland the autonomy and independence to deliver courses and services in a way which best suits their local communities and students. By fostering distinctive and innovative approaches, increased college autonomy will create the diversity essential to raising standards. It is no coincidence that the most autonomous higher education institutions consistently top global league tables.
The other main recommendation of our report concerns the way colleges received their funding. We would like to see young people between the ages of 16 and 19 given an entitlement (equal to the value of educating a child in their local authority area) which could be used at school or college. This could allow students to attend college to sit traditional school qualifications such as Highers, or take up vocational studies, or a mixture of both with the money following the student. Widening the range of vocational and academic options to individuals and, by giving them greater choice, would enable students to decide what is best for them with schools and colleges having to respond to their needs.
The Post-16 Education Bill provides an opportunity to give colleges a new deal – one that gives them greater autonomy and young people greater choice about the form of education that best meets their needs. Sadly, it seems that opportunity has been missed.