Recently, a number of education and training providers have found themselves in the headlines for the wrong reasons. Fraud allegations are hitting a growing number of providers, from private training companies to universities. Of course, most of us manage to do our jobs without taking bribes, cooking the books, or pilfering more than the odd paper clip. Yet if we are not on the edge of a crisis, we soon will be; it is only a matter of time before the sheer scale and extent of the allegations start to undermine the foundations of public confidence in the education and training system.
One response to the allegations is to blame reporters and the media. Twenty years ago, perhaps such stories would have been quietly strangled at birth. Now, competition for readers’ and viewers’ attention is so ferocious that only the most gory scandal-mongering and controversy can hope to maintain audience figures. Still, you wouldn’t have thought so if you had been following the apprenticeships story – the Sheffield press, as well as the BBC and other Yorkshire media, were notably behind the game in asking tough questions of the city’s fourth largest company.
But I cannot believe that it is only the media who are responsible for bringing tales of corruption into the light of day. It seems to me that something has changed in the behaviour and values of those who lead the provider organisations. Let’s not blame journalists for reporting the nasty smell that is coming from the shadier corners of our lifelong learning system. Instead, we should try to identify the background causes of the stink, and then decide how to get rid of it.
Much of the problem lies with the paradoxical processes of deregulation and marketisation of education and training. These are paradoxical because they involve both an attempt by government to apply the disciplines of the market to lifelong learning, and the imposition of mechanisms that seek to maintain a degree of public accountability. Hence the paradox: these are at best managed markets. And the more complex the arrangements for accountability are, and the more stable doors they try to close, the less it is possible to exercise simple and transparent oversight, and the more there are unplanned loopholes and cracks in the system.
The shift towards output-based funding, and the opening up of learning programmes to private and voluntary providers, illustrate this process. Some recent examples:
- A4e, a large recruitment agency and welfare-to-work provider, is under investigation by the police for allegedly claiming funding for placing people in non-existent jobs.
- Eight staff from training providers in Nottingham were jailed in January after forging documents to falsely claim students at two colleges had completed courses.
- Reporters for the BBC’s Panorama programme claimed that that paperwork has been forged to claim funding for apprenticeship training.
- A community college in Liverpool was told to repay £80,000 after bogus employer references were provided for students to gain funding from the European Social Fund.
- London Metropolitan University had to refund £36.5m paid to it on flawed completion figures – flawed, of course, in the institution’s favour.
Ironically, in September 2011, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced with great fanfares that it was launching an ‘action plan for cutting red tape for employers’ who were taking on apprentices. This was after Geoff Russell, chief executive of the skills funding agency, wrote to John Hayes, the FE and Skills Minister, warning that sub-contracting was already responsible for well over half the misuse and abuse of public training funds.
These problems are greater in the private sector (which includes a number of voluntary sector providers). In its report on Adult Apprenticeships, the National Audit Office calculated that the value of flawed funding claims across the entire Apprenticeship Programme was 0.8 per cent. This was lower than the 1.1 per cent on Train to Gain, but above the 0.6 per cent for adult further education.
Yet we should not ignore signs of unethical behaviour in the public sector as well. Several college principals have got into hot water for employing their spouses and children in senior positions. One Welsh university has been negotiating with discredited recruitment company A4e over validation of its awards. The University of Wales got into repeated trouble over the quality of its accredited courses, as well as allegations of visa-rigging at some of its partner institutions. And the director of adult learning and marketing co-ordinator at Shropshire Learning and Skills Council were jailed in 2010 for their part in a bribery scam.
League tables are often associated with changing behaviour, and higher education is no exception. There have been allegations that staff try to influence responses in the National Student Survey. And the British Medical Journal announced in January that as many as one in eight scientists responding to its survey had witnessed a colleague fabricating or altering research data prior to publication in peer-reviewed journals.
And, just like the main political parties, universities are increasingly dependent on donors. The incoming director of the London School of Economics has to overcome the damage done by the scandal of Saif al-Islam Gaddhafi’s doctoral thesis, as well as the institution’s track record of securing contracts and donations from a range of unsavoury businessmen and dictators. Elsewhere, the Serious Fraud Office is investigating claims that a businessman helped arrange a prestigious university place for a Vietnamese student in order to land a contract.
Even in the most honest of institutions, the honorary degree system increasingly resembles a peerage system administered by David Lloyd George. Why on earth would anyone – let alone a small university in Scotland – think of awarding an honorary doctorate to Donald Trump? That this question more or less answers itself is itself a telling indicator of changing values at the top of higher education.
There are, then, good reasons why unethical behaviour of various kinds has become more common. Of course, none of these factors can excuse corruption, although they may help to explain why it has become more prevalent. Ultimately, though, this has to come back to purpose and values. We could simply let the lifelong learning system move over to the market place, and leave malpractice and corruption to the law. And we could include fraud awareness classes in our national school curriculum.
Or we can act on the belief that education and training can be good public services. These are services which help build public value, and which embrace the civil society that has nurtured and cherished them. We need to celebrate the idea of public service, and cheer on those who exemplify it, rather than treating it as something shameful. Meanwhile, hats off to the small magazine FE Week for its tenacity and courage in keeping investigative journalism alive.