Aim higher and make the money go further

November 14, 1997

Roger Ward believes ministers can stir the sleeping giant of the college sector by ending the funding bias that favours higher education

Who would be an education minister these days - or any day come to think of it? With election euphoria a fast receding memory the realities of office are now dawning. As ever it comes down to money. Everybody wants some. Schools, the college sector and universities all want, and need, more. Each vested interest is required to argue its corner for its share of the public purse.

Chancellor Gordon Brown sticks to his predecessor's public-sector guidelines and Liberal Democrat Don Foster reminds us that with his party's policy of a one-penny rise in income tax such an unseemly turf war could have been avoided. Meanwhile hard-pressed ministers scour their departmental coffers for independent budget heads, programmes to put on hold and accounting wizardry to squeeze every last pip in order that the education funding crisis is addressed.

Into this scenario Tony Blair calls for an extra half million post-16 intake for the millennium. This amounts to 400,000 students for the college sector and 100,000 for the universities. Great for Britain but another complication to add to the funding dilemma. How are ministers and their equally overworked Department for Education and Employment officials to respond to the competing claims made by the various national lobby bodies? They all claim there is a financial crisis. They all want more money. They are all right, of course. But as the ministers do not have the required cash some difficult judgements are now required as to how the taxpayer can better be assured of value-for-money from education.

Colleges seek to continue the growth of their student numbers at the extraordinary rate they have achieved since incorporation only four years ago. One route the colleges can offer is expansion through sub-degree work - inexpensively and with real quality. In this the sleeping giant of the education world, the college sector, comes into its own.

Colleges seek to complement the university sector rather than compete with it. But in doing so they now articulate a legitimate claim that the economy, and hence the nation, is very clearly the loser unless the long-standing bias in favour of higher education funding is addressed. This is not a turf war. It is recognition that improved educational attainment at lower levels creates a greater demand for higher education and that the enhanced output of higher education graduates in recent years stimulates demand for lifelong learning.

The starting point for any extra funds into the university sector, as Sir Ron Dearing helpfully points out, should be at sub-degree level in the first instance. Frankly I am not at all happy with that phrase sub-degree. Why can we not have a college degree as the key component of the pathway from further to higher education? Either way, the evidence from the government's own statistics is quite clear. It is in qualifications below university degree level that the United Kingdom is least well placed on any international comparison. Until this weakness is overcome expansion at higher levels of education should be tempered. Indeed, despite substantial public monies periodically invested in higher education there is still a low level of participation among the social groups addressed by the Kennedy agenda.

The case, both social and economic, for tackling the problems of participation is clear. As the globalisation of competition intensifies, the nation cannot afford to waste the potential that resides in these individuals . Nor will it be healthy for society to become increasingly divided between educational haves and have-nots. The creation of new funding incentives from the government will undoubtedly provide an important steer to encourage all institutions to address these issues.

Franchising, properly managed, is a positive link between further and higher institutions. Clearly the priority has to be the quality of the student learning experience. Poor practice such as serial franchising cannot be desirable but equally the restriction of franchising to a single education partner will be too limiting in some circumstances. For example, while in many instances a college will properly look to a local higher education partner for the bulk of any franchise arrangements, there already exist situations where a local partner does not have the requisite degree of expertise in a specialist subject area.

In this instance a link with a more distant higher education institution is the most appropriate route for supporting a local employment requirement. In addition it needs to be recognised that there exist many arrangements under which a university provides academic validation for a programme provided by a college independently of any franchise arrangements. This vital college role is an area of growth that provides the taxpayer with a value-for-money output and must not be curtailed.

Our ministers could usefully save the college and university leaders the embarrassment of constantly searching for phrases designed to be nice to one another in public while complaining of funding bias in private.

The process should be simple enough. The last government committed itself to exploring the scope for harmonisation of funding principles across the different 16 to 19 sectors. Now the time has come to go further. The government should seek to commit itself to the principle of common funding levels for all 16 to 19 provision including TECs, colleges and universities. Only in this way can young people be guaranteed quality and consistency of provision regardless of the provider. With this approach we can all share in an examination of the conflicting claims for extra funding.

We can then determine how the nation can be given the best value for money while addressing the nation's recognised skills shortage and social exclusion agenda.

The expansion in the college to university interface is already clear. College-based higher education provision is funded less generously than similar work in higher education institutions. The Higher Education Funding Council proposed that this anomaly should be consolidated into a new funding formula. Under the previous government's analysis of funding this may just about have made sense. However, it would have condemned large numbers of students for whom college-based provision represented the best solution to their needs (because it related to their immediate vocational requirements, or because it permitted much easier access) to second-rate education and training.

Good for Sir Ron Dearing's Higher Education in the Learning Society report for pointing out that, aside from special pleading, provision should be funded at the same level, be it college or university. I always did like Ron Dearing.

Roger Ward is chief executive of the Association of Colleges.

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