AN OFFICIAL complaint has been made against the Further Education Funding Council in a bitter row over course funding which could have disastrous consequences for college finances.
The dispute, under investigation by the Department for Education and Employment and which could end up in court, centres on the council's decision not to fund scuba diving courses because it classes them as recreational rather than educational.
The FEFC fears that losing the battle would set a dangerous precedent as it could open the floodgates to funding demands for all sorts of "recreational" courses. The result would be less cash for "real" education and training.
FEFC spokeswoman Patricia Stubbs said: "We could find ourselves having to pay for kite-flying courses rather than education and training courses which genuinely improve people's life chances.
"We would be acting beyond our powers under the Further and Higher Education Act if we were to use public funds to pay for what are essentially recreational diving courses."
The official complaint was made to the education department by David Welsh who owns the Fort Bovisand Underwater Centre, near Plymouth. Mr Welsh says he is owed some Pounds 800,000 because of the FEFC's decision not to fund courses which he ran for colleges. He estimates that he helped train some 9,000 students between August last year and this March.
Mid Kent College of Higher and Further Education, based in Chatham, is refusing to pay Mr Welsh more than Pounds 500,000 because it says it is not liable under FEFC rules. Peter Watson, Mid Kent's director of finance, said that the college followed an FEFC model contract which states that a college is not liable if the funding council refuses to pay for the course. Mr Welsh says he will sue the college if there is no resolution within the next fortnight.
The FEFC is refusing to pay because it says that the courses are basic introductory courses, aimed at recreational divers. The council claims that they do not fulfil the criteria for funding set down in the Act. This stipulates that courses receive cash only if they are geared to direct progression to higher level qualifications. If a precedent is set for the diving courses then many other courses could be eligible.
Mr Welsh and the colleges argue that to reach the top grade of diving training, which is recognised by the FEFC, a person has to pass every previous stage including two courses which the council does not recognise.
South Devon College, in Torquay, had also run diving courses at Fort Bovisand. The college's executive director Ian Bentley said that the college had settled with Mr Welsh but was, as a result, tens of thousands of pounds out of pocket. Mr Bentley blamed the FEFC. He said that it had failed to make clear last year that it would not fund the diving courses.
The matter was raised in the Commons last week by Gary Streeter, MP for South West Devon. Mr Streeter said the education secretary had the power to intervene and urged him to do so. Education minster Kim Howells said he was shocked at the apparent lack of communication and interaction between the FEFC and the colleges. Dr Howells said the DFEE was dealing with the matter urgently.