Socialist Worker

Labour’s assault on the colleges

As next week’s strike by 25,000 further education lecturers was called off, Mark Fisher looks at the harm done to the sector by neo-liberalism

Issue No. 1998

Lecturers and students are angry about cuts in colleges, neo-liberal reforms and low pay (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Lecturers and students are angry about cuts in colleges, neo-liberal reforms and low pay (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Educational institutions run by unaccountable business interests and managerialists on spiralling wages. Is this a vision of the future of schools after New Labour’s neo-liberal “reforms” have been imposed?

Almost certainly – but it has been the reality in further education (FE) for over a decade now.

The funding and management of FE colleges is a textbook example of how the neo-liberal ideology put in place by the Tories and extended by New Labour is a mask for the restoration of privilege and class power.

Neo-liberal ideology maintains that its reforms increase freedom and maximise economic efficiency. What is happening in FE shows that exactly the opposite is the case.

The government’s own Foster report on FE found that the majority of 16 to 18 year olds study in colleges – 727,000, compared with 439,000 in all schools.

Yet, according to another government body, the Learning Skills Development Agency (now rebranded as the Quality Improvement Agency and the Learning and Skills Network), the funding gap between colleges and schools is £1,000 per pupil over a two-year A-level course.

Colleges have provided education on the cheap.

This situation has been made worse by the fact that FE lecturers, whose pay is 10 percent less than that of school teachers, can now find themselves teaching 14 to 16 year olds who have been rejected by the school system.

Since FE colleges were removed from local education control in 1993, the wages and conditions of lecturers have declined while the salaries of principals have risen sharply.

The “incorporation” of colleges meant that each college management could negotiate pay and conditions with its own staff.

It was a clear – and depressingly successful – attempt to curtail collective bargaining, making national union action difficult to organise and coordinate.

Neo-liberal ideology maintains that freedom is increased by reducing the level of government intervention. So you might expect Tony Blair’s neo-liberals to have loosened central government control over FE.

In fact, colleges are subject to an unprecedented level of governmental meddling.


Like schools, colleges now fall under the remit of Ofsted, whose name, the “Office for Standards in Education”, belies its political function as an enforcer of government policy.

Ofsted’s role is to ensure that schools and colleges do what they are told to by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES).

Hence the mantra-like repetition of the ominous but revealing word “compliance” in the literature of Ofsted and the DfES.

The funding system for FE colleges is a byzantine bureaucratic web at the centre of which is an unelected, unaccountable quango, the Learning and Skills and Council.

Alongside “compliance”, the other buzzword in FE is “contestability”, with colleges supposedly “competing in an open market” and funded on the basis of the retention and recruitment of students.

Far from increasing efficiency, the government’s free market “reforms” have meant more bureaucracy.

Lecturers have been commandeered into meeting a series of spurious targets which waste time, undermine morale and further erode diminishing professional autonomy.

Instead of the “friction free” environment of managerialist ideology, colleges find themselves paralysed by what is in effect market Stalinism.

Even the neo-liberal bible the Economist admitted recently that chancellor Gordon Brown’s imposition of “Soviet style” targets on public services had been counterproductive.

FE has traditionally delivered vocational courses, A-levels and adult education. FE has been committed to lifelong learning, giving adults the chance to return to education.

Colleges have also offered A-level students opportunities denied to them in schools, not only by giving students the chance to retake examinations but, perhaps more importantly, by offering a different ethos to that provided by the school system.

Students have in the past been encouraged to take responsibility for their learning and have benefited from a less regimented environment than in place in schools.

It’s not surprising, then, that FE finds itself out of step with New Labour’s control and competition fixated thinking.

FE is associated with an egalitarianism that New Labour’s neo-liberal commissars would like to consider outmoded.

They want to funnel students into city academies – New Labour’s gleaming, business run ideological training camps.

Consequently, the funding for adult education and A-levels in FE has been slashed.


Lambeth college, a major centre for adult education in London, has seen its budget cut by more than £2 million, with 100 jobs under threat.

At Walsall College of Arts and Technology, 470 teaching staff are to be sacked and re-employed on a worse contract.

The future for FE is bleak, but FE has been a kind of neo-liberal lab in which reforms that will be implemented in the rest of education have been tried out first.

The college lecturers’ union, Natfhe, has long campaigned for parity with school teachers.

If the government is not challenged, parity is likely to be achieved, not by increasing lecturers’ pay, but by reducing teachers to the immiserating level at which lecturers currently languish.

What is happening in FE is the result of the systematic implementation of a philosophy.

The only way to win back education from bureaucrats and business interests is by collective action – by unions, students and parents – against neo-liberalism.

Mark Fisher teaches philosophy and religious studies at Orpington College in Kent.

For more on the further education dispute see Anger as lecturers' pay strike is called off

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Sat 29 Apr 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1998
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