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Colleges up for grabs? First competition for 16-19 courses brings fears of creeping privatisation

24 August 2006 | last updated: 15 December 2015

The first open competition for the provision of 16-19 vocational learning has raised fears amongst college lecturers that it could be the start of a creeping privatisation process with no benefit to local colleges, staff or students.

Experienced lecturers fear that inexperienced new vocational learning providers would simply create division instead of co-operation amongst neighbouring colleges and schools and pay little heed to the broad needs and talents of young students.

UCU has responded to what may be the first advertisement for a tendering competition for 16-19 vocational provision. This was published recently by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) for the Black Country, in the West Midlands, which is seeking providers for extra vocational learning in West Walsall. The competition follows the introduction of the government's new vocational learning strategy in the 14-19 Education and Skills White Paper.

The Black Country LSC says the competition will 'provide a better balance of provision to improve choice and to improve participation', but UCU says investment in existing colleges and schools, co-operation and strategic planning would be better than local rivalry. The union also fears that private companies may fail to extend the horizons of young people who are too frequently directed towards limited training and employment choices.

Chris May, UCU West Midlands regional official, said: 'UCU in the West Midlands believes the tendering process will reduce local collaboration between educational institutions and may attract bidders with no experience of the FE sector or vocational training who merely seek to make a fast buck. It's a creeping privatisation.

'What students want most is a well motivated and skilled lecturer, providing quality education and training in a well resourced, clean institution. I am not convinced that extra competition brings anything but disorder and division to a sector that needs stability and co-operation. It would be better to invest in existing education providers and develop strategic, joined-up thinking and closer collaboration between schools, FE Colleges and universities.

'If a new provider wins this competition, UCU will want to ensure that local colleges are not damaged.'

Roger Kline, UCU's head of equality and employment rights, said: 'Another concern is the current widespread prevalence of gender stereotyping in the promotion and delivery of vocational education and training, whereby girls are too readily steered towards 'hair and care' and boys towards traditional male skills and occupations such as vehicle maintenance. If we are to equip workforces for the jobs of the future and improve the opportunities of women, this stereotyping must end.

'Many professional teachers in 14-19 education fear that private companies with little or no background in education will lack the vision to challenge this problem. UCU will keep a close watch on whether new providers rigorously apply the government's requirement of curriculum diversity in ways which challenge stereotyping. Young people must be equipped to have options and make choices about their future.'