The Liberal Democrats have called for the further and higher education funding councils to be stripped of their powers. They plan to go into the next general election arguing that in England and Wales further education funding councils should be scrapped and higher education funding councils removed from their key role in quality assurance.
In a manifesto for the party conference in Brighton on September 22-26, the working group on education and training policy led by education spokesman Don Foster proposes a transfer of power in further education from the present quangos to new regional assemblies in England and a Senedd for Wales. The document does not deal with Scotland.
The move, intended to boost democratic input in further education strategic planning, would initially involve shifting control from the Further Education Funding Council for England to nine regional committees. These would comprise representatives from local authorities, colleges, employers and training and enterprise councils.
Capital and core funding for further education would be channelled through regional government, while recurrent funding would follow the student and be paid by the local authority for the area in which the student lived.
The policy paper, Investing in Excellence, suggests higher education funding councils should be maintained and rules out merging them with further education funding bodies. But their responsibilities for quality assurance should be transferred to a new quality council.
Such a change would be a radical departure from plans for a new single quality agency, where HEFCE would continue to play a major role. It would also demolish moves by both the Welsh and English funding councils to build quality assessment into their funding systems. The paper states: "The Liberal Democrats believe that it is unhealthy for one body to be responsible for both funding and quality."
The quality council would be responsible for the development of a new national credit accumulation and transfer system and could act as a national awarding body, as well as taking over quality and standards monitoring. The paper says HEFCE should continue to provide funding to support "blue sky" research. The present research council structure should be retained, with the addition of a new council for the humanities.
But the Liberal Democrats would remove the Office of Science and Technology from the Department of Trade and Industry and give it overall responsibility for the Government's science and technology activities.
A major revision of student support in both further and higher education is also proposed, backed by money raised through an extra penny in the pound on income tax and increased student and employer contributions.
All students over the age of 18 would receive support, regardless of whether they were studying full or part-time or in FE or higher education. They could borrow from individual learning accounts, paying back through an income-contingent loans scheme linked to National Insurance.
The Liberal Democrats say they would also introduce a student fee entitlement which would be available to anyone accepted on a higher education course. This would pay for the equivalent of one year's study and would be renewable, subject to academic progress, for up to four years.