#163;100,000 appeal to fund legal challenge

Tes Editorial

The row over college funding took a new twist this week as Bilston Community College launched a public appeal for cash to cover the costs of a court action against further education's paymasters.

The college, the fastest growing in Britain, wants to raise #163;100,000 through the Community Education Defence Fund, an appeal chaired by Bilston principal Keith Wymer and set up through one of the college's training outfits, Black Country Training.

Mr Wymer is pressing for a judicial review of this year's college funding round after Bilston lost #163;3.5 million. He claims the Further Education Funding Council was unfair in the way it spread the pain of cuts imposed by the last government earlier this year.

FEFC officials deny the charge, arguing that budget cuts were distributed fairly.

Mr Wymer said: "As many people will be aware, Bilston College's budget for 1997-98 has been cut by over #163;3.5 million. Much of our work is with individuals and voluntary organisations who cannot afford to pay fees for who are unable for a variety of reasons to attend classes on college premises.

"These funding cuts could almost entirely destroy community education, increasing the number of people denied access to training and job opportunities."

Bilston was one of a small number of high-growth colleges hit hard by the Conservatives' decision to axe budgets for growth in January.

And Mr Wymer told The TES the college had already had letters or calls of support from 17 other colleges and many more community groups.

He said the defence fund was set up both to avoid using public money for an assault on the FEFC and to allow the local community to voice its support for the college.

He said: "It does not really matter for me personally whether these cuts are made or not, but it does matter for the community. People could say, as NATFHE do, that the college is just expanding for expansion's sake and so we want the community to say they are supporting this - one way would be by making donations and sending letters of support."

The move comes after Paul Mackney, regional official for lecturers' union NATFHE, called for a ministerial inquiry into Bilston's operations, claiming the college was a "juggernaut out of control".

Mr Wymer said community groups in partnership with the college were writing to Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett to refute detailed allegations put by the union.

A response released by the college as The TES went to press mounted a vigorous defence of its work through a huge string of partnerships across the country.

In a detailed nine-page response to Mr Mackney's complaint, Bilston deputy principal Dr Frank Reeves accused the NATFHE official of failing to understand the college or its aims.

He said Mr Mackney's letter was "a reflection not of a union creatively seeking to meet the challenge of developing a mass cost-effective further education system relevant to the present-day British economy, but of a traditional backward-looking mindset.

"While we deal with Mr Mackney's questions in detail, such a response only answering to what amounts to a rag-bag of complaints, fails to provide a comprehensive or convincing picture of a consciously planned and integrated corporate approach.

"Far from the college's arrangements being bewilderingly complex, they are simple, logical and consistent, once the college's commitment to mass education and community strategy are understood." Dr Reeves added: "It is to be expected that NATFHE members should seek to establish a professiona l monopoly to improve the market position and salaries of their members, but their Luddite mentality . . . inflates the cost of the delivery of mass education."

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