Employers and union forge new coalition for cash as further education collges plunge deeper into debt
COLLEGE employers have forged an unprecedented alliance with Britain's biggest union to fight for more money for further education. The pact between the Association of Colleges and Unison coincides with new figures showing record levels of college debt.
AoC chief executive Roger Ward and Unison general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe, who brokered the pact, have requested a meeting with education secretary David Blunkett. It is anticipated it will take place this autumn.
Mr Ward said: "Sadly, while committed to inclusivity and greater access, the cuts mean we are actually turning away students.
"This unique joint approach with Unison is a step towards redressing the balance of funding and reskilling in the nation."
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers, with 5,000 members in general further education and sixth-form colleges, may also come on board.
A spokeswoman said the union had been approached by the AoC and that the early signs of some sort of agreement looked positive.
Lecturers' union Natfhe looks less likely to join with employers in a pact. While the union has long called for a united approach in the fight for more further education funding, the dispute over pay and conditions could prove a serious obstacle.
In the meantime, the union is launching its own campaign for further education funding.
The campaigns are set against a growing financial crisis that has left some colleges teetering on the brink of collapse.
The latest college accounts circular from the Further Education Funding Council shows that 264 of the 439 council-funded colleges have an operating deficit - up from 204 in 1994.
More than half of the colleges in England are financially weak or are showing signs of financial weakness, according to the FEFC. Of these, 84 are classed officially as financially weak and a small number "unable to demonstrate long-term viability".
A spokesman for the council said that a small number meant "between nought and ten".
He said that the council had developed procedures to ensure adequate provision continued in the areas concerned and that in some cases this could mean mergers and collaboration.
One hundred and fifty colleges - just over one-third of the total number - have fewer than 25 cash days in hand.
This is the amount of cash a college still has available to meets its liabilities.