Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The FE Capital Build Crisis

Following the freezing of funding for the Capital Build programme in December 2009, a recent investigation by MP’s on the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee condemned the "catastrophic mismanagement" of the college building scheme which now could waste hundreds of millions of pounds. The chairman Phil Willis has been quoted as saying: "It really beggars belief that such an excellent programme which had showed real success in transforming the further education experience for students was mismanaged into virtual extinction” and that "warning signs were missed and even worse, ignored. LSC didn't notice as the total value of the projects it was considering began to overshoot the budget and a review which could have prompted action was shunted around committees and policy groups."

The problem has been that the LSC encouraged colleges to bid for funds and approved projects it did not have money for. By last November, 144 colleges had together invested tens of millions of pounds in preparing bids and getting approval from the LSC. Recently, it was announced only 13 of those projects would go ahead this year.

The term ‘beggars belief’ certainly reflected Novatia’s thinking as the story unravelled. We were working at the time with a number of colleges and their design teams on what promised to be ground breaking projects to provide learning environments and facilities in tune with their young learners. It must be noted that school leavers are increasingly expecting greater control over their learning in line with the ICT rich environments and flexible learning they are experiencing within both the Primary and Secondary sector, each of which have their own Capital Build projects.

Another key student group was that of local businesses and their employees. We know that many are pressed to get staff trained to a suitable standard whilst maintaining the business. They require the facilities and infrastructure sufficient to deliver flexible programmes both on and off site for both groups and individuals. Colleges have put a lot of time into planning for this but for most, the planned builds will never reach the chosen design.

Where do colleges go from here?

Well in the first instance, the committee of MPs have recommended that arrangements for compensation for colleges and possible solvency issues are addressed ASAP. No doubt the regional LSC teams will be working hard on this with the colleges. Also the committee MPs are keen that colleges which want to press ahead by finding alternative funding be offered government help to do so. This offers some light and some exciting possibilities but we await more details on this. We can expect that even with this, colleges' funds will need to be spread further.

What can be achieved with less funding?

Increasingly ICT is central to the any college’s strategy to reach out beyond its traditional parameters and engage with learners, business and the community on a 24/7 basis. These days’ students young and old are more likely to engage with learning through a media rich environment. For example using video, podcasts, blogs, subject based wikis, online assessment supporting all learning activity. Tutorials groups can be formed around the use of these tools augmented by the use of low-cost tele conference software such as Skype for remote tutorial support, offering both tutors to student and peer to peer support. Whether programmes are full time, part time or designed for remote learning, ICT offers the flexibility to scale programmes in a responsive and cost effective way.

As colleges consider their physical estate, ICT offers the possibility of running programmes from any location, whether that is a low-cost unit, a semi permanent base for some programmes or a local employer’s premises. With the exception of more specialist spaces, learning areas require flexibility of furniture and ease of access to a range of ICT to ensure timetabling opportunities are maximised.

Starting with a Total Cost of Ownership/ cost benefit exercise, colleges can make informed choices on use of ICT to extend their reach, maximise use of space and save on space per student. A robust and scalable ICT backbone is required and Capital/ Revenue options are increasingly worth consideration as ICT as a managed service becomes cost effective. Colleges require more ‘bang for their buck’; from experience this is only achieved by effective strategic planning and consensus building, where education and training drive a clearly designed ICT solution that meets needs both now and in a 5-10 year timeline. That is why Novatia have emailed a helpful thumbnail guide for planning, to all college Principals who may be considering their 5-10 year plan for the delivery of their 21st century programmes, with or without help from the LSC. If you'd like a copy, email me at

Stephen Norris