Marriages made in heaven?

August 2, 1996

The Further Education Funding Council for England has a thankless task. Like the hapless guardian of 450 teenage kids, it has to distribute inadequate pocket money, offer advice and then take the flak as its charges struggle to cope.

For many colleges the struggle has been to cater for more students while receiving less per capita funding.

This year, the Government found Pounds 2.9 billion for further education institutions, an increase of 3.4 per cent on the previous year, while projecting an increase in student numbers of 4.9 per cent to 1.1 million. At the same time, it reduced capital funds by 30.8 per cent.

Where college governing bodies, mainly comprising volunteers from local business, fail in this juggling act, the FEFC can only offer guidance.

If colleges' new-found independence flings them headlong into bankruptcy - and the first to fall is expected at any minute - so be it.

From next month, the sector has a new father figure. David Melville takes over as chief executive from Sir William Stubbs, who has guided the council through its first three years.

Professor Melville, vice chancellor of Middlesex University, is a physicist with a solid higher education background and a reputedly safe pair of hands. His predecessor inspired admiration and fear in equal quantities for his tenacious negotiating style and his passion for the further education cause.

Professor Melville is expected to take a more "hands off" approach. His higher education background has led to speculation about the future relationship between the FEFC and the Higher Education Funding Council. He has been generally welcomed as a skilled and diplomatic administrator.

He will have to be. His time at the helm could well see the first merger and/or closure of a college and the subsequent headache for the FEFC of ensuring adequate provision in the area concerned.

He will also preside over an expected change in the funding formula and in the inspection process. The chief inspector, Terry Melia, leaves at the end of the year.

Meanwhile reductions in capital allocations are threatening to undermine facelifts planned for college buildings when they left local authority control, and the Private Finance Initiative has created more complications than solutions.

Sir William has warned that funding is due to fall. The council has advised colleges to make "prudent" assumptions about income. Over the next three years it is set to shrink by about 6 per cent per year in real terms.

But Professor Melville also inherits a sector which has grown considerably in self-knowledge over the past three years. It has honed its methods of information-gathering, particularly through the individualised student records, giving detailed data on enrolments, achievements and funding. It has also progressed in levelling funding across the sector.

With the colleges now united under a single body, the Association of Colleges, and 16-19 education under the Dearing spotlight, FE finally has a chance of making its voice heard.

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