FURTHER education will be Pounds 39 million worse off in cash terms in 1998 compared with 1996, according to the Association of Colleges.
But under plans announced by the Further Education Funding Council some colleges could get cash boosts of up to Pounds 1 million.
The FEFC plans to allocate Pounds 30 million for widening participation for students over 19, and a further Pounds 20 million to increase participation for 16 to 18-year olds, in 1998-99.
Helena Kennedy's agenda for widening participation is the inspiration for the proposals. Colleges with the largest numbers of students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds could net hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The FEFC has also confirmed moves to close the funding gap between the best-off and worst-off colleges "in one go". About 115 colleges with a low average level of funding will each be Pounds 375,000 better off on average in 1998/99, according to the FEFC. Low-funded colleges at the bottom of the heap stand to gain as much as Pounds 1 million extra.
The AoC welcomed the funding council's move but said that overall funding, at Pounds 3.09 billion, was down by Pounds 39 million compared to 1996-97. The funding decisions have caused controversy. The FEFC has been accused of a "fudge" over the London weighting issue. Widespread opposition by non-London college principals has failed to stop the FEFC siphoning Pounds 4.5 million from its national budget to help London colleges to meet higher labour costs and greater social deprivation in the capital.
But bowing to pressure from the non-London college leaders, the funding council has stopped short of giving London colleges nearer Pounds 9 million, which was proposed.
The FEFC has also agreed to "initiate a review of institutional and geographical factors for all colleges in time for the 1999-2000 funding round".
Proposals to give extra funds to rural colleges are also under consideration.
Geoff Hall, FEFC director of programmes, said: "Some principals have said that there shouldn't be a London weighting at all, or that London was being treated too favourably, but the London case came out as a very strong one."