Further education colleges are scaling down their engineering departments so far that a lobby group has been formed by college principals seeking to halt the widespread trend, writes Alison Utley.
The principals claim that cuts are devastating engineering technician and craft training. Peter Moore, director of the technology faculty at Lewisham College in London, said a combination of long-term underfunding of engineering courses and new pressure on resources meant that progression to higher education was now being threatened.
"Universities are already short of these students and their problem is going to be compounded," he said.
The principals say that unprecedented departmental closures and rationalisations are the result of a funding mechanism which does not compensate colleges sufficiently for the high cost of buying and maintaining equipment and premises. Nye Rowlands, principal of Manchester College of Art and Technology, said 32 craft departments had closed in recent months.
"They are dropping like stones," he said. "Some workshops are more like museums - the equipment is so out of date it is not worth learning about."
Mr Rowlands said the cost of training an engineer was probably double the average unit of funding, but the funding methodology did not compensate properly for the extra cost. The average capital equipment allocation was Pounds 300,000 per year but this was nowhere near enough, and as a result numbers of students opting to study engineering were falling dramatically. "Word soon gets about," he said. MANCAT's course which last year attracted 85 students only recruited 26 this year and consequently 13 staff redundancies are now on the cards.
Jim Alleander, principal of West Nottinghamshire College, said some colleges were losing six-figure sums from their income for work-release training since the funding council had diverted its funding via the Training and Enterprise Councils. "I'm convinced that not all the money is being adequately transferred," he said. In the current year colleges were getting less income for training credits than they did in the previous year for youth training. Mr Alleander said that this might mean that national training targets would become "little more than hot air".
"We must decide whether we want our students to be working on the clapped-out lathes and mills of the 1950s or the high tech equipment that the Government refers to in its Competitiveness White Paper," he said.