Poor relation deserves front-page treatment too

February 9, 1996

There are not many Brownie points to be won in any outbreak of me-too-ism. The universities are to be supported in their very public and well-documented fight for a bigger share of the nation's purse.

Nor should we deny our schools the resources they need to provide a first- class education for all our children. Yet tucked away in the "news-in-brief" sections of some newspapers, and completely hidden from view in the mass circulation tabloids, is a pulsating story of grief, poverty, forced marriages and even strangulation at birth. It is the story of a great national resource that is being slowly demoralised and debilitated: it is called the further education sector.

Vice chancellors (or some of them) may want to tax their students but in the colleges it is not an option. Students in further education already have to pay their own fees. Moreover the amount of support for maintenance still available is derisory, with relentless whittling away of the discretionary award system.

However much one may bemoan the low level of the mandatory grant, and the pressure on a full-time university student to take out a loan, every little bit helps.

The state deems it right that a prospective degree student should be given some form of financial support. But why should this not also apply to the prospective technician, every bit as valuable and necessary?

So what are the facts about this strangely under-reported success story?

Since 1989/90 (when they first acquired a measure of control over their own budgets) colleges have increased student enrolments by over 30 per cent. At the same time they have had to endure cuts in revenue spending per student of at least 20 per cent.

Over the next three years the latest public spending projections will require colleges further to cut revenue costs per student by 16 per cent, and will see annual capital allocations cut by an enormous 63 per cent. Yes, you really have read that figure right.

It is often not realised that there are more students in further education colleges than in the universities and sixth forms combined (more than 3.2 million in 1994/95). We may be the poor relation but the colleges are surely big brother rather than little sister.

And what are all these students doing? They are taking academic or vocational courses. They are updating their skills or taking professional qualifications.

They are seeking ways of re-entering the labour market. Some are just enjoying the intoxication of learning. They are all playing their part in meeting the needs of a rapidly changing nation. Further education is the necessary tool in which the United Kingdom is harnessing and developing the skills of its people.

For several weeks the nation has been wrestling with its conscience about selective schools: arguing the merits of a system which is so successful in keeping the majority out. In further education we delight in bringing in: in breaking down the barriers to access, be they cultural, social or educational.

Because further education is so complex, few even try to understand it. Locally the colleges enjoy a high profile. Their communities, their industries, are supportive. Their users, the students, vouch for the colleges' success by coming back in their droves. They have achieved phenomenally high growth targets against a background of relentless efficiency gains. They have achieved a productivity record that would have kept them on the front pages if they had been called industry plc.

Yet for how much longer can this go on? The buildings are in need of repair and replacement. Equipment is increasingly out of touch with employer needs. The colleges are innovative. New methods of teaching and learning are being implemented in response to student needs, and as a means of keeping pace.

What the colleges are not good at is whingeing. They have carried on and got on with the job. It is in their nature. But neglect by governments, accidental or otherwise, has to be exposed. The colleges are vulnerable and precious. They do not want Brownie points. They want recognition, reward and resources.

Ruth Gee is chief executive of the Association for Colleges.

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