Dodging the FE shrapnel

January 10, 1997

These days, when politicians discuss learning they mentally drop the L. In the run-up to a bitter general election battle no one can afford to forget about money for a moment.

For further education this is no bad thing. All political parties recognise its economic value. The only problem is how to pay for it.

The Government knows what it wants to get from colleges - 8 per cent growth over three years, efficiency gains of more than 5 per cent a year, a key role in improving basic literacy and numeracy. But it is not so sure about what it wants to give.

The sector's financial problems are already severe, with a fifth of colleges in difficulty and an overall deficit of Pounds 119 million. Over the next few months, it faces changes to the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme and an end to the Further Education Funding Council's restructuring scheme. These changes will make efficiency gains harder to deliver. Growth is also under threat from possible cuts to a cash sum available for colleges recruiting more than their target number of students.

For Don Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, further education is "a time bomb waiting to explode". Should this happen, higher education will be dodging shrapnel. While the two sectors have been increasingly in competition for students over recent years they also depend on each other. Colleges contribute to a learning culture, drawing in non-traditional students and passing many of them on to continue their studies at university. In turn, the promise of an eventual university degree entices students to colleges.

If growth slows in further education there will be a knock-on effect in the higher sector. This will make it hard for Britain to match the numbers in post-16 education of other countries in Europe and will keep it lagging even further behind the "tiger economies".

This is probably why 15 per cent of university academics surveyed by The THES believe that any extra public money should go to further education rather than universities, and 21 per cent of those in the further education sector disagree. It seems each sector is aware that they are not the only ones with problems.

More significant is university support for degree work in further education colleges. They could be the main beneficiaries of moves to two-year degrees if the Dearing inquiry decides to push the idea. A Dearing team has recently returned from investigating two-year associate degree programmes in the United States. The Further Education Funding Council has included similar ideas in its submission.

And Sir Bryan Nicholson, chairman of the north of England education conference, urges Dearing (page 14) in one breath to come up with innovative solutions to aid funding problems while, in the next, praising new flexible courses and further education expansion. At the same conference the education secretary, Gillian Shephard, made a point of promoting practical as well as academic skills for young people.

Money is the key to all this. Further and higher education have been earmarked for important economic roles. Scrabbling about for savings will not be easy to reconcile with the professionalism demanded of them.

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