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Are we on the road to ruin?;FE Focus

The Scottish Office has some tough questions to answer as college finances plunge deeper and deeper into the red, says John Cassidy

HERE WE are, just six weeks from the start of another financial year and, despite the pledges, Scotland is still in the dark about each college's grant-in-aid.

This is particularly pertinent when Reid Kerr in Paisley has had its financial chaos aired in public. The college forecast a pound;1.4 million deficit, but a consultants' report predicts pound;1.9 million. Obviously a not very efficient regime of fiscal management.

This story comes just a year after the Clydebank fiasco. How many more colleges are heading the same way? We may get an indication when the National Audit Office publishes its 1998 report. Remember the 1997 report forecast that 39 of the 43 Scottish colleges would be showing an operational deficit.

One thing baffles me about these consultants' reports: the only "lifebelt" the "rescue packages" appear to offer is through reducing the number of staff. Surely there must be some other means of redeeming the situation.

Students are not going to go away. Indeed the Government wants another 40,000 in the sector and they will still need to be taught. The consultants' report on Clydebank College showed, and acknowledged, that the increase in student numbers was well above the sector average. What was the solution? Offer 32 lecturers a "voluntary" severance package. The report on Reid Kerr by the same firm indicates that "weighted SUMS" (the basis for grant) grew by 4.5 per cent from one year to the next. Again the proposed solution is, reduce the payroll, this time by 58.

How can a college fulfil its statutory obligation to the local community, social and industrial, when it loses 20 per cent of staff? Why is it always the ordinary staff who have to pay with their jobs for financial mismanagement?.

Surely something must be done about college managers. To whom are they accountable? The only factor in their defence is the difficult circumstances in which colleges have been forced to provide a service by successive Governments. Despite some criticisms, the sector has a quality product, while at the same time increasing student numbers by more than 40 per cent since incorporation.

Despite this, the level of funding has dropped even in money terms. When year-on-year inflation is taken into account the cuts are even more severe. Under both Conservative and Labour governments since incorporation, FE has been subject to the worst excesses of Thatcherism. An educational market-place has been created.

In theory at least, the more students you have, the more funds you receive. But colleges have been forced to compete for students and various pots of money, for example projects under the European Social Fund. Competition intensified when the pot was reduced, unfortunately on an annual basis.

Colleges still have to increase student numbers to survive, but there has not been a concomitant increase in funding. Contrary to its claims, the situation did not improve after Labour's first allocation which just imposed a smaller cut. Things were only slightly less bad than the Tories had promised.

How does the Government expect the sector to survive when there is no allocation made to cover inflation, increased salaries for staff, or other essentials such as fabric maintenance? The sector has done all that has been asked of it, but cannot continue under the current funding regime.

The total deficit is rising at an alarming rate. The Secretary of State's 1997 FE report shows that overall the sector was pound;7.7 million in the red for 1994-95, and by 1996-97 this had risen to a crippling pound;14.4 million.

We need to get rid of the destructive culture of competition. There is no place for crude market forces in education. Everyone must have an equal opportunity to improve education and employability. If ministers are serious about eradicating social exclusion, they must abolish the individual college approach and put in a structured framework across Scotland.

I am not alone in making this call. Several college principals have said off the record that we need a national framework. Are they afraid to voice this opinion through the Association of Scottish Colleges? Perhaps when the blame of a future financial disaster is laid at the door of a principal (sorry, chief executive, as some of these market-place entrepreneurs like to be called) they will realise why lecturers, and other staff, resist the so called rescue packages so vehemently.

Lecturers have little or no say in the running of their college, yet many have to pay the price for mismanagement. Why should principals and other senior managers be exempt? The only chief executive to be "relieved" of his post did not go on a basic rescue package of pound;220 for every year of service. He went with a very much enhanced package as a charge on the insolvent college.

Why is the ASC silent on the total deficit burden? Is it a there but the grace of God, or more realistically thank God it's not me, attitude, or do principals genuinely agree with the crazy annual game of Russian roulette that goes under the name of grant-in-aid? Do they not want to see an end to the annual lottery? Why don't they join with the unions and approach the Scottish Office?

Some colleges may not be able to wait for the new funding council to wipe the slate clean. The sector cannot afford another Clydebank or Reid Kerr mess. Join with us, and call on the Government to give all colleges a clean balance sheet to start the millennium. Given a new start, principals might not feel so threatened, and agree to shape a genuine national FE framework.

Unions and management have the same objectives. We want a strong, healthy, vibrant, responsive sector adequately resourced. Can we forge a tripartite agreement among the unions, management and the Scottish parliament?

John Cassidy, a lecturer at Cardonald College, is president of the Education Institute of Scoltand's College Lecturers' Association. Although the EIS shares many of the concerns raised here, he writes in a personal capacity.

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