'A real issue for students across the UK is not size, but location'

Click to follow

In his speech to the CBI last week, Gordon Brown told business leaders that "in the old world you had colleges for everything that happened after school," but we now need a focus on sixth-form centres and "community colleges with state-of-the-art training facilities that increasingly specialise in adult vocational excellence". Meanwhile, Skills minister John Denham told our Association of Colleges conference that there is "no evidence that larger colleges provide more effective education".

While there are hints in both speeches that Government now believes that small may be beautiful, one real issue for students up and down the UK is not about size at all. It is location, location, location. If you work hard and most people now work an eight to ten hour day what you want from your college is high-quality training near your work or home (or, even better, at work). For many learners, location will take precedence over curriculum and cost.

Economy of scale should not then be the most powerful propellant when planning for the future. The analysis of where to put new specialist provision should focus as much on geographical location as it does on student choice; if you cannot get to a class there is no choice at all.

We could look more to the business community in terms of planning decisions rather than the ethereal world of academic theory. Otherwise, to use a favourite phrase of John Denham's, we are likely to hit the targets but miss the point, i.e. people's lives and the pressures they face. So in the same way that a supermarket undertakes a sophisticated retail location analysis, planners should conduct an educational geographical analysis only with more vigour.

Location is, of course, particularly important for students in rural areas who don't have access to the same transport networks as urbanites. Spatial geographers have been grappling with this problem for centuries. In 1826 the economist Johann Heinrich von Thnen's clearly set out how location dominates the issue of supply in his treatise "The Isolated State".

Von Thnen used a basic agricultural model to develop his theories, concluding that for each product there is a certain distance from a key market where its production would be worthwhile: too close to the city and the cost of the land becomes too high, too far and the transport costs become unaffordable. Another product having greater yield or lower transport costs will capture the market.

Planners have to balance their economies against wider social and economic needs. It is a difficult task and the further you go from an urban centre the harder it becomes. A college campus may appear economically unviable when judged against a narrow economic criteria but if it serves an area with high-quality education in other words, if it's in the right place with the right training then planners should think again. It may just be one of Mr Brown's "community colleges with state-of-the-art training facilities, specialising in adult vocational excellence".

The author is acting-chief executive of the Association of Colleges