HE 'overfishing' a small pool

November 16, 2001

Further education funding chiefs this week called on the government to stop ploughing money into universities and expanding undergraduate numbers at the expense of colleges.

Learning and Skills Council chairman Bryan Sanderson and LSC chief executive John Harwood told MPs on Monday that the key to improving the United Kingdom's workforce skills and economic competitiveness was growth and investment in further education.

Giving evidence to the education and skills select committee, Mr Sanderson said: "The government has got to stop pouring fertiliser on higher education. It has got to start lower down.

"I would like some effective communication from all of you MPs and ministers to get vocational education the same parity of esteem as academic qualifications. This country is bedevilled with academic snobbery."

Mr Sanderson, former managing director of BP Amoco and still vice-chairman of governors at the London School of Economics, told the committee that further education needed more money. The biggest drain on national productivity, he said, was under-education of those falling between school and university-level education.

Mr Harwood said he was worried by the expansion of higher education and the additional investment in the university sector this will bring.

The government is reviewing higher education student support amid fears that tuition fees and loans may be jeopardising prime minister Tony Blair's 50 per cent participation target.

Mr Harwood said: "I think that this needs to be looked at very carefully. If one is not careful, (higher education expansion) will disrupt other types of provision. We need to avoid over-fishing of a rather small pool."

Both men rejected accusations from committee members that the LSC was spending too much money on red tape connected with college quality inspections and financial auditing. The LSC took over the functions of the Further Education Funding Council and the training and enterprise councils in April.

Former education secretary David Blunkett had said that the LSC would save £50 million a year on bureaucracy. But a fortnight ago the select committee heard that the LSC's operating costs would rise to £193 million next year, compared with £150 million for its predecessor organisations in 1999-2000. The figures were given in evidence to the committee by John Brennan, policy chief for the Association of Colleges.

Mr Harwood disputed the figures. He said that the total estimated cost of the functions inherited from the FEFC and TECs in 1999-2000 was about £5 million, rising to an estimated £298 million next year. The LSC's operating costs were therefore substantially lower, he said.

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