Flow of Ideas
A Capital-friendly Culture for Further Education in the UK

Glenn Rikowski, London, 17th November 2007


On April 1st (an appropriate date) 1993, colleges in the further education (FE) sector became ‘incorporated’ educational entities: self-governing organisations free of local education authority (LEA) control. Individual colleges – ranging from general further education colleges servicing the post-compulsory education market, to sixth form, specialist vocational colleges and adult education centres – became responsible for their own management, budget, staff and assets. They had charitable status but were not covered by the Companies Act or company law. At the time, a lot was written and reported in the mainstream and educational press about colleges in the FE sector forging a ‘new culture’. However, only in the last few years have we begun to see some of the logical outgrowths of the kind of ‘culture of change’ UK governments (Conservative and New Labour) had in view for FE colleges.

A Personal Account

From 1985 to 1994 I worked in the FE sector. My time at Loughton College of Further Education, which became Epping Forest College (EFC) in 1989, was the most enjoyable of my life in terms of the teaching involved. Yet in 1993 I felt that things were changing for worse in the FE sector; especially given the new contracts we were offered after incorporation. In those days, many FE colleges ran substantial programmes for part-time evening and day students in academic subjects. Epping Forest College had significant programmes specifically for mature students, for example in sociology: I taught on the Mature Sociology A-level course, and evening class sociology and GCSE groups. This was a rewarding experience – constituting some of the happiest times of my teaching career. The college also ran higher education Access courses for adults.

I’m not denying that these types of courses are being run FE colleges today. Yet from personal experience I feel that they have been downgraded by today’s colleges working under the cosh of the New Labourite obsession with “employability”. When two of my sons tried to get part-time evening courses in A-level Film Studies and Theatre Studies in colleges in east London last summer they faced great difficulties in finding something appropriate. When I looked at the overall offerings in these colleges I was struck by the narrowness of the choice available at A-level. There was more choice for part-time day, and significantly more for full-time day courses aimed at those who wanted to upgrade their A-level points score – but not so much available to working adults wanting part-time evening study. Another thing that struck me was the extent to which the colleges had been vocationalised. But this is in line with the kind of ‘cultural change’ New Labour requires of the FE sector.

The Leitch Mission for FE: ‘Employability’ as Labour Power Enhancement

What has happened is that the kind of ‘cultural change’ recent governments have wanted for FE colleges is that of increasing “employability” of the nation’s stock of labour power, i.e. labourers' capacity to labour. This is apparent in the Leitch Report which came out in December 2006 (see HM Treasury, 2006a). Lord Leitch was Chairman of the National Employment Panel and had been a Chief Executive of Zurich Financial Services (HM Treasury, 2006a, p.2). He is also Chairman of BUPA and a non-executive director of Lloyds TSB (HM Treasury, 2006b, p.2) – so obviously knows lots about life in FE colleges. Basically, the Leitch Report argued that employers should lead course development in FE (and to some extent in the higher education sector), so that their ‘needs’ (i.e. labour power needs) could be best catered for. As Milner (2006) noted:

“The aim will be to create a demand-led framework in which employers determine what is required” (p.1).

Milner also indicated (p.2) that the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) were keen for more competition (i.e. the insertion of private sector education and training providers) regarding course provision. However, the Leitch Report downgraded courses that were not concerned primarily with economically valuable skills (e.g. academic A-level courses for part-time and adult evening class students), as:

“Economically valuable skills must be delivered through a demand-led approach, facilitated by a new culture of learning, and an appetite for improved skills amongst individuals and employers” (HM Treasury, 2006b, p.2).

In this new ‘culture of learning’, all:

‘…public funding for adult vocational skills, apart from “community learning” [courses provided by local education authority adult education centres: GR] and certain courses for people with learning difficulties, should be routed through the new Train to Gain programme, which subsidises training in people’s places of work and compensates their employers for the time it takes …” (in Kingston, 2006, p.1).

Hence, adult ‘education’ – apart from the exceptions noted by Kingston – should be transformed into ‘training’ via Train for Gain, or risk being cast into a financial limbo.

In Doubt

The whole Leitch agenda appears to rest on either ignorance of research in relevant fields, or an ostrich-like attitude to any theoretical or research-based considerations. Thus: some years ago Alison Wolf (2002) pointed out that there was no relationship between expenditure on education and economic growth – which casts doubt on the basic assumption underlying the Leitch Report. This was that investment in ‘skills’ would not only be good for individuals (which, when generalised is dubious) but would also be economically beneficial for UK plc. The sacrifice of adult education for the shibboleth of the ‘skills agenda’ has come under increasing criticism:

“Whitehall’s head of FE has been forced to defend the Government against claims that there is no proven connection between skills and economic success. It comes as ministers face increasing criticism at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills over the emphasis on skills training at the expense of adult education” (Lee, 2007).

Dennis Hayes, from Canterbury Christ Church University, and formerly joint President of the University and College Union, argued that:

“If you look at studies if the world economy, there is no connection between the qualifications or skill level and economic performance. Utterly no connection. There are countries where the skill level of qualifications is going up hugely and the economy has collapsed. This whole strategy [i.e. Leitch’s: GR] is based on assumptions about the economy that don’t make sense …" (in Lee, 2007).

My own research (Rikowski, 2000) suggests that even if it is assumed that employers' labour power needs should determine courses and qualifications in schools, colleges and universities, we cannot assume that employers can provide any coherent account of what their ‘needs’ are. The usually cautious FE Focus Editorial was apoplectic in its wrath when it argued:

“Of course, employers must be listened to. But the social wellbeing of our adult population, not to mention its mental health, can be greatly enhanced by studying non-vocational subjects. … [And] … colleges will always believe, rightly, that their students are more than simply the raw material from which profit can be extracted by employers at a later stage” (FE Focus, 2007).


The culture of change that Leitch and his business cheerleaders want students to embrace is their subservience to enhancing their skills for capital accumulation above any other educational concerns and interests they might have. Hearts and minds have to be changed and shaped on this issue, and Leitch acknowledges this. But ‘Colleges have wider aspirations than this – and so should policymakers’ (FE Focus, 2007).


FE Focus (2007) See people, not pound signs, Times Educational Supplement (FE Focus), Editorial, 16th November, p.4.

Kingston. P. (2006) Boost investment to solve skills crisis, Leitch report urges, The Guardian, 5th December: http://education.guardian.co.uk/further/story/0,,1964624,00.html

Lee, J. (2007) Leitch philosophy under attack, Times Educational Supplement (FE Focus), 16th November, p.1.

Milner, M. (2006) Britain must match training with employers’ needs, urges Leitch report, The Guardian, 5th December: http://education.guardian.co.uk/further/story/0,,1964163,00.html

HM Treasury (2006a) Leitch Review of Skills, Her Majesty’s Treasury, 5th December, at: http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/independent_reviews/leitch_review/review_leitch_index.cfm

HM Treasury (2006b) Lord Leitch published review of long term skill needs, Press Notice, 5th December, Her Majesty’s Treasury: http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/newsroom_and_speeches/press/2006/press_leitch.cfm

Rikowski, G. (2000) Why Employers Can't Ever Get What They Want. In fact, they can't even get what they need, a paper presented at the School of PCET Staff/Student Seminar, University of Greenwich, Queen Anne's Palace, 30 Park Row, Greenwich, London, 27 March: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Why%20Employers%20Can't%20Ever%20Get%20What%20They%20Want

Wolf, A. (2002) Does Education Matter? Myths about education and economic growth, London: Penguin Books.

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