FE colleges score but fail to win

February 7, 1997

When further education colleges were told, after incorporation, to hone their performance, few envisaged chasing so many moving goalposts. It must come as little comfort that their cheerleaders are becoming more vocal while shunting the goal line further towards the horizon.

Local and vocational - long-term tenets of the sector - have become the new buzz words in education.

The Government made further education programmes a central part of education and employment strategy in the Competitiveness white paper and the Lifetime Learning document last year, while over the past few months teams of English educationists have trooped through United States colleges to inspect two-plus-two degree programmes - a pet subject in Sir Ron Dearing's inquiry into the future of higher education and one in which colleges must play a key role. (It is in fact a role they have been developing for a decade, but home-grown success somehow lacks glamour.) Last week, Nick Tate promised, on appointment to the new Qualifications and National Curriculum Authority, that he would value the kind of seamless path from school to university already provided by FE. This week, a survey of employer attitudes in The THES shows strong support for the dialogue between education and employers that colleges have always championed.

So far so good. But how is all this supposed to happen when dialogue and development are threatened by an extraordinary Government U-turn on FE funding? So keen were ministers to make colleges go for growth after incorporation four years ago that they agreed to pay for every additional student recruited over college targets, albeit at a cheaper than normal rate.

Expansion was the name of the game and student numbers mushroomed, through franchised courses, industry training programmes and adult education.

The Government gloried in the numbers studying for post-16 qualifications while the budget settlement only last November envisaged yet more growth - of 8 per cent over three years. The Further Education Funding Council has a committee, chaired by Helena Kennedy QC, working out ways of mopping up those students still resisting the FE pull.

Then came the delicate question of money. Who was going to pay for the 350,000 extra student enrolments planned for this year? It seems that in all the enthusiasm someone forgot about the bill.

FE appears prone to ministerial memory loss, its flexible spot between school and university making it de rigueur for policy but awkward in practice.

When similar growth money was withdrawn from higher education in 1993, universities were given at least ten months' notice. When changes to the teachers' superannuation scheme were announced last year, they were flagged as a way of stopping teacher shortages in schools. They upset everyone but especially colleges, which were struggling to shed staff rather than to keep them.

The Department for Education and Employment insists no decision has been made on whether it will honour its commitment to pay for growth, and, as The THES went to press, the Association of Colleges was increasingly confident the DFEE would relent on this year's money. The FEFC has vowed to fight its corner, determined to absolve itself from blame. But as talks take place at these higher levels, the colleges are already facing up to disaster, damned if they carry on recruiting and the extra money never materialises, damned if they don't and lose students.

It is not as if there are no other worries in a sector where two-thirds of colleges are trading at a loss and 20 per cent are considered financially vulnerable. Nor is it the first time the rules have changed. In recent months, the Government has called for collaboration in place of the competition it once encouraged, and for continuing efficiency gains while placing limits on the early retirements that helped secure savings.

From all this, colleges have, on the whole, emerged dizzy but unbowed, adapting their game.

Both Government and opposition have gained much from presenting further education as Britain's step into the next millennium. Now it is time to face up to the hard questions about how it is to be financed.

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