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Aboard the Titanic with a lead lifebelt and a leaky lifeboat;Commentary;Opinion;FE Focus

Is it the beginning of the end for further education or merely the end of the beginning? In the light of policy announcements by Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, and the grant allocations last month this is a burning question. It is certainly the beginning of the end for the FE funding methodology. The image of the Titanic springs to mind.

Last week I took the opportunity of analysing, the college responses to the 1997 funding review consultation exercise. The response was high, 41 out of the 43 colleges, and comments were typically forthright in a context where the squeeze on resources is commonplace.

Despite the fact that well over half of Scotland's colleges pleaded for a delay in implementation, the new model, or a contorted variation of it, was introduced. Likewise, despite the fact that three-quarters of colleges responding expressed a preference for averaging calculations over at least two years, the Scottish Office chose to introduce a one-year measure of activity. This was never part of the consultation and, without inside information, could not have been anticipated.

It is unthinkable that the minister was not made aware of the virtually unanimous position of the sector on these basic issues. The model which has been introduced is complex and will, I believe, foster volatility and instability. Yet 35 colleges, all of those addressing the issue, gave unequivocal support for controlling the excessive volatility in funding through managed and sensible growth in student activity.

Surely the minister and his department know that this will promote a dash for growth based, perhaps, on cavalier approaches to counting and auditing student activity.

Interestingly, more than half the colleges expressed concern with respect to the credibility of the student count - a matter which has been subsequently taken up vigorously by the Scottish Office and which hopefully will allow in-year adjustments to budgets.

The sector needs an injection of confidence. Twenty-three colleges have had budget cuts. There is pound;1.5 million less coming to the sector despite an pound;8 million "increase" on the spending plans of the previous administration.

It is quite probably the beginning of the end of any confidence that FE can survive the new methodology in anything like its current form. Ninety-six per cent of our allocations are based on "market share". It would be reasonable to expect an increase in competition culminating in a significant downturn in FE staff numbers and, perhaps, college closures.

There are some excellent examples of self-regulation, in Glasgow for example, where the 10 colleges are committed to the establishment of a joint planning forum. But the new funding model will force rationalisation and mergers as a matter not of recovery or quality, but of survival. The situation could be so bad that because of deficits mergers are not an option. Who wants a lead lifebelt when the iceberg has been struck?

The promised dialogue and partnership between New Labour and colleges cannot be achieved without the confidence of open and effective communication. Our experience of the funding review exercise does not engender confidence. Far from it.

I suppose I should welcome the proposal to establish an FE funding council, albeit as part of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council. The "new direction" for FE might be seen as the end of the beginning for genuine dialogue and partnership. My concerns about the paucity of ministerial briefings should be overcome by a fresh start, but they are not. This proposal, like the new funding model, is heading for the iceberg.

The SHEFC costs upwards of pound;3.2m each year. Where would such a resource be found for an FE funding council? The SHEFC has a chief executive. Will he automatically fund the FEFC? Will these arrangements recognise FE policy priorities like attacking social exclusion?

Will the funding council promote a "democratic deficit", as has been suggested by MPs in England. Will parity of esteem between FE and higher education be upheld? These are crucial questions about a "new direction". They are the iceberg confronting the sector.

The transfer of acrimony to "next step" agencies is a tired and undemocratic alternative to a fully funded civil service and the rigorous, accountable, delivery of important national FE provision. We might have expected it under the previous administration but not under Labour and certainly not without full consultation with all partners. Such an approach would be the beginning of the end not just for FE but for open government.

It was reported recently that the minister, in an attempt to explain a funding decision, telephoned an Educational Institute of Scotland branch secretary at home. The action shocked many people in FE. If it is one example of open and accessible government then it is something of a new beginning.

In terms of the funding review and the new direction, Brian, perhaps you would like to know that my number is in the book.

Graeme Hyslop is depute principal of Langside College in Glasgow and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity.

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