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ASC fears leap in unknown

Further education employers in Scotland want the Government's plans for changes to college funding postponed by at least a year. And the major FE union claims that colleges cannot continue to grow unless their budget deficits are wiped clean.

The Association of Scottish Colleges, the employers' body, has written to Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, criticising the proposals from his review group on FE funding as a leap into the unknown.

Robert Kay, the ASC's chairman, says colleges are still in the dark about the growth they are to be permitted in the 1998-99 financial year, which is based on student activity in 1996-97, and that "informed judgment cannot be made on the suitability of the proposals".

The review group, which included six FE principals, proposed that some changes should begin to take effect from April. The sector faces a Pounds 2.1 million fall in grant this year, according to the ASC, although it concedes this is less than the Pounds 5 million planned by the previous government. But Mr Kay's letter stresses the colleges' continuing concerns over inadequate funding levels for FE, leading to constant pressure to make "efficiency gains".

Mr Kay states that it is "vital to bring to an end the period of a sharply falling unit of resource and increasing college deficits. Further competitive but unfunded growth will only make this situation worse."

The Educational Institute of Scotland goes further and says college debts could make it well-nigh impossible for FE to play its expected part in Government initiatives such as training young people and lone parents under the welfare-to-work programme, lifelong learning and the University of Industry.

Reminders of the ongoing funding problems facing FE emerged as lecturers at Reid Kerr College in Paisley staged a one-day strike last Thursday in rejection of a 1 per cent pay offer. Lecturers at Clydebank College, which had to be bailed out by the Scottish Office in June, plan their third one-day strike next Tuesday, having been told that salary rises can only be funded by redundancies or increased class contact.

The ASC believes these problems will continue unless the issue of "unfunded growth" is addressed immediately. The employers say that other controversial changes intended to reward colleges with high student success rates, tie cash to strategic initiatives and overhaul student fee income can wait.

Tom Kelly, the ASC's chief officer, says colleges need an immediate easing of the financial burdens for the coming year and more time to evaluate the other changes.

"The sector is being asked to approve a set of principles without a clear statement of rationale and adequacy of funding to support these principles, and without sufficient data to show what the effect of these changes would be," Mr Kelly commented.

The EIS backs the management's call for additional cash and caution. It believes that money following the student should not be the sole means of funding FE.

The union says geographical location of colleges, breadth of course provision, variety of local industries, levels of deprivation in the college's catchment, and requirements of the local community are also relevant factors.

Concern over the proposed link between funding and student achievement is also uniting college managements and unions. The colleges would no longer be supported for their "entry costs", which have rewarded attempts to widen access and participation.

Instead the emphasis is being shifted to student output, but the EIS claims that the proposal for a student achievement fund - although it would represent only a tiny element in the Scottish Office allocation of FE grants - was "educationally unsound and could lead to a restriction in opportunities for students".

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