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Blame it on 1993, say Lib Dems

Most of the problems faced today by colleges result from their incorporation in 1993, the Liberal Democrats have charged.

Phil Willis, the Lib Dem education spokesman, said in the House of Commons that indebtedness, a lack of capital investment, failure to invest in staff, pay differentials, casualisation, franchising, over-complication of funding arrangements and a lack of strategic direction were all problems typifying further education from 1993 onwards.

The Labour Government had made no real response to those problems, he said, only a structural reorganisation with the creation of learning and skills councils. These arrangements were "horrendous" because of their bureaucracy.

David Chaytor, the Labour MP for Bury North, was also critical of college performance between 1993-1997. He said that following incorporation, funding for the post-16 sector was squeezed year on year in a way it never had been in any UK public service during any four-year period.

"The result was tremendous staff demoralisation and an enormous exodus of further education lecturers from the profession. There was a continual struggle with a funding methodology that was more arcane and complex than any that had been used for any UK public service."

He said that during the period "we saw the introduction of a pseudo-enterprise culture in the post-16 sector. Sadly, as the years passed, some of the Conservatives' heroes of that enterprise culture finished up running pubs in north Wales with their girlfriends rather than the colleges they should have been running".

He added: "Some of them are still fugitives from justice. Others ended up in jail - or they should have done. The record of the last Conservative government is dire."

But Tim Boswell, Conservative spokesman on further and higher education, said that under their leadership student numbers had increased by 3 million to 4 million.

He criticised the Government for expecting colleges to shell out pay increases for staff on the basis of special grants subject to variable conditions, rather than an assured stream of core funding.

Mr Boswell said it was appropriate that the first Opposition-day debate of the new Parliament should be on post-16 education.

The sector was critical to improving the nation's skills base and its international competitiveness, and needed far more attention than it received at present.

He also warned that when talk of converging funding between school sixth forms and colleges was in the air, it should involve levelling up and not down.

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