A time for radical options

April 11, 1997

People in higher education may feel hard done by. Those in further education may wonder what they are complaining about. As last aut-umn's budget works its way through to detailed allocations to colleges, the extent of the pain in further education is becoming apparent.

Newly independent further education colleges have faced a large influx of students, a worse per capita squeeze than higher education, funding methodologies which are a temptation to creative counting and a set of qualifications not all of which are well understood or accepted. Their students get no mandatory grants and no loans and those over 18 pay their own way.

Yet FE is going to be at the forefront of an incoming Labour government's plans to lift large numbers of unqualified people off the dole. Once almost invisible, FE colleges are now poised to develop the kind of political clout enjoyed by United States community colleges: just as all members of Congress have a college on their patch so every MP has an FE college to lobby them.

Further education has a different ethos and history from higher education. It is the second-chance sector, taking all comers. They are the access point of our education system. Small wonder that the Association of Colleges is wary of seeing further education and higher education merged and a single funding council put in charge of distributing public money, as many are beginning to suggest. Universities are large, greedy beasts and their preoccupations could all too easily overwhelm other priorities.

That said, the overlap between the two sets of bureaucracies is an ever-present temptation to the tidy minded. If regional collaborative arrangements (see page 5) are to be encouraged - and the smart money is on the Dearing committee putting its muscle behind such developments - a decision will be needed on who is responsible for what. Should the funding councils be merged? Or, if they are to stay separate, should each be responsible for a discrete set of institutions or a discrete level of qualifications? There is no obvious right solution.

The further education funding council has a regional structure which may be useful if Dearing goes for regionalisation. But the higher education funding council, certainly in respect of its research funding responsibilities, has to be national. This leads rapidly to discussion of whether the research money should be switched entirely to the research councils, or distributed in part on a regional basis to develop centres of excellence. Given the research councils' track record in meeting their supposed obligation to pay overheads, giving them the money could have serious implications for universities, leading to more underfunding of research projects.

Such is the difficulty of the issue that voices are beginning to be raised in favour of sweeping the funding councils away altogether or at least reducing them to a strategic advisory role. If support for students is to be radically altered by the introduction of Learning Accounts, an idea which is attracting growing support from all major political parties, the detailed executive role of the councils may not be needed.

It is to be hoped that the Dearing committee is looking at such radical options as a means of promoting greater flexibility across further and higher education and that it does not get stuck with what are essentially second-order turf wars.

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