The case for Chartered status? Not proven.

I remember a colleague many years ago pondering the latest bright idea from Head Office.  “It’s always so hard to know with these new initiatives”, he said: “is this going to dominate our lives for the next five years, or will we all have forgotten about it by Christmas?”.

That particular idea – a Neanderthal ancestor to our modern Local Enterprise Partnerships – did die, but what are we to make of the Government’s ideas for Chartered status for colleges and other providers?

The risk is that it will go the same way as TQS, the Training Quality Standard, a time-consuming distraction which gave colleges another badge to add to their collection, but which surely made no difference at all to the choices made by a single employer.  No wonder BIS killed it off.

As a consultant I’ve been taught to start with a single question: “what problem are they trying to solve?”.  And the Government’s Consultation Document on Chartered Status offers four answers:

  • enhance the reputation and status of the sector;
  • demonstrate where and how colleges and training providers are being responsive to the employers and the communities in their area;
  • measure and demonstrate increased quality;
  • help prospective learners and the UK Border Agency recognise legitimate FE colleges and training providers.

Let’s take each in turn.  Does Imperial College get its worldwide recognition and status from holding a Royal Charter, or from the terrific work done by its academics?  This is how Imperial describes itself on its website:  “Consistently rated amongst the world’s best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research.”

Quite.  There’s no string of badges indicating that some other body has given it the thumbs up for some aspect of its work – though the website has links to the latest Research Assessment Exercise and to several league tables, because both have real currency in the academic world.  [The RAE is now REF (Research Excellence Framework), of course, but Imperial’s link is to its 2008 RAE data].

I draw two conclusions.  The first is that Imperial manages just fine by standing on its own strengths, without displaying a badge of Government approval.  It even manages just fine without the need to call itself a university.  So it’s a sign of weakness, isn’t it, that colleges are thought to need a new badge indicating that we’re amongst the chosen?

My second conclusion is that unless anyone else recognises the badge you wear, and understands what lies behind it (neither RAE scores nor HE league tables are transparent), it is worthless.  Will the Government invest in ensuring that employers, potential applicants and those who advise them, know about, and understand, the value of the new Chartered Status?  I’d be surprised.

Second, demonstrating that providers are responsive to employers and their wider communities – a bureaucratic process substituting for normal market mechanisms?  Tesco needs no badge to show that it’s responsive: it has sales figures, and queues at the tills.  Colleges and training providers win the approval of individuals and employers, and their business – or they don’t.  How does another badge help?  This is TQS all over again.

Third, ‘measure and demonstrate increased quality’.  23 new criteria are suggested which go well beyond what Ofsted – the Government’s guardians of quality – are already asked to inspect.  They are all good ambitions of course, so why am I not persuaded by the list?

The first reason is that it flies in the face of the Government’s ambition to give us more freedoms and flexibilities.  They’re clearly irritated that providers haven’t grabbed their opportunity with more enthusiasm, but is the answer really to start clamping down already, and prescribing exactly how we are to be free and flexible?

My second concern is that such lists are always too short-sighted, too dominated by current fads and obsessions.  15 years ago Helena Kennedy produced her well-received report on widening participation, and the phrase ‘widening participation’ was on everyone’s lips.  Had chartered status been invented then, the criteria would certainly have included some test of ‘widening participation’, but there’s no sign of it now.  How many of today’s 23 will stand the test of time?

The final aim – ‘help prospective learners and the UK Border Agency recognise legitimate FE colleges and training providers’ – looks very odd.  Doesn’t Highly Trusted Status do that job already?  The fact that the UKBA is not as predictable as it should be in awarding that prize is a reason to sort out the UKBA, not to invent a new category.

There is also the further complication, not touched on in the paper, that these are proposals for England only.  Many people beyond our shores are baffled by the distinctions between England, Great Britain and the UK – and a good few in England have no better idea.  For all its faults, HTS is at least UK wide.

The starting-point for all this was an attempt to define criteria by which colleges might win ‘earned autonomy’, akin to that held by universities.  That worthwhile ambition – grasped clearly by Lord Lingfield in his excellent report – looks to have got lost along the way.

Which is why I asked above whether higher status and prestige really be achieved by some bureaucratic process.  I’m sympathetic to the Government’s irritation that the sector isn’t moving fast enough, but they should have the courage of their convictions and stand back.  It will work out.

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About Iain Mackinnon

I am Managing Director of The Mackinnon Partnership, a niche consultancy working primarily with public sector clents in the UK, and focusing on skills and enterprise, usually in the wider context of wider economic development.
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