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Big six call for cash injection

A stark warning of college closures and declining quality was issued to ministers as the battle for more cash for further education intensifies.

The six leading organisations representing the sector have united to highlight the plight of colleges said to be buckling under unprecedented funding pressures.

Their submission, Funding Further Education into the 21st Century, calls for a massive cash injection to FE in the autumn's public expenditure round.

The document lists a catalogue of crises now facing the sector in the wake of last year's Budget settlement, which it says forces colleges to slash costs per student by 17 per cent over the next three years.

Government plans for 1996-99 also include sweeping cuts in capital funding, totalling a Pounds 216 million reduction.

The double blow last November fell on a sector already struggling financially, recording a Pounds 129m trading deficit in 1994-95 and facing spiralling debts as borrowing increased to finance essential investment.

The Further Education Funding Council acknowledged at the time that 115 colleges - more than one in four - were at risk if they failed to meet targets this year, while 48 were already in a weak financial position and are on a so-called sick list. A total of 58 institutions ended last financial year with a negative general reserve.

But the sector made efficiency gains of almost a third between 1989 and the current year.

The submission, sent to ministers this week, says further efficiency gains now being demanded will only be possible "with a significant impact on the financial viability of many colleges and ultimately on the quality of provision".

Costly courses such as engineering and construction will be further jeopardised and those in minority subjects will be damaged, it warns. The worst-hit colleges may have to merge with neighbours or close "in extreme cases".

The document casts severe doubt on the capacity of the private funding initiative - the Government's scheme to shift public capital investment from the Treasury to the private sector - to provide the help colleges need to repair buildings.

The six associations call for capital spending on colleges to be restored to pre-Budget levels. Their demands total at least Pounds 546m over three years along with Pounds 17 m a year they say is needed for technology innovations recommended by the Higginson Committee and a further Pounds 35m to compensate for local authority cuts in transport and access funds.

On top of this comes running costs cash, which the associations say should provide for further growth of 3 per cent per year at a cost of around Pounds 100m each year.

The demands come despite warnings from senior civil servants, including the education and employment permanent secretary Michael Bichard, that this autumn's spending round is likely to be tight.

While there is a consensus among the six associations over the submission, some privately suggest such a substantial "wish-list" may not be the best way to win over ministers.

But John Brennan, policy director at the Association for Colleges and author of the document, said: "If we don't ask for things, is anybody going to give us anything spontaneously?

" We have no choice but to go out and argue our case hard and put things forward that we believe we need."

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