The first term of a new government is a time of experiments. Politicians need to let a few flowers bloom to see which ones are best suited to the beds. This year's college garden has innovation in spades. Reforms to 16-19 qualifications were delayed to give teachers more time to prepare for them. As a result, this reform - Curriculum 2000 - now coincides with the implementation of the Learning and Skills Act. This was accelerated to deliver quick results, presumably because college managers are believed to be more nimble-footed than sixth-form teachers. This academic year also sees the national launch of the University for Industry's Learndirect and a host of changes to student support connected to the 1997 Labour manifesto. In this case, the driving force has been the desire to deliver promises.
Much of this change is welcome. Student support was an overgrown part of the further education garden for almost 20 years. A combination of local government neglect and Conservative government cuts diminished it to almost zero. This is no longer so, and we now see the development of two alternative models to help students support themselves and to pay their fees.
One model is that of national entitlements which comes in two main varieties: individual learning accounts to help adults with their fees, and education maintenance allowances to support young people while they study.
The other model gives the money to the provider in the form of access funds. These allow colleges to fill gaps in a flexible fashion and are now worth almost pound;90 million. Their main use is to help students with fees, transport and childcare.
These models are not entirely new. The new system of individual learning accounts has several similarities to the nursery vouchers established by the Conservatives - down to the fact that the same company, Capita, runs the administration. The maintenance allowances are operated like the old higher education student grants and by the same people - in local government. One difference is the tightness of the rules. University students got their grants regardless of how often they attended. Sixth-formers lose a week's allowance every time they miss a class. And, finally, access funds were a Conservative invention and a stop-gap. The first minister to switch money out of local government grants into colleges was a Tory - Michael Forsyth, in Scotland, in 1996.
But there is a big difference in the new approach and Labour's intention is to carry out big reforms. Lack of money is one reason why young people from poorer families do not stay in education and it is a clear barrier to ome adult learning. The Government is committed to overcoming disadvantage in education and is looking for a set of policies to provide cost-effective support. Having decided on the system, it is likely to transfer money from elsewhere to make it work nationally.
Given a choice, it seems inevitable that national entitlements will win out over access funds and local discretion. It is easy to criticise the access-fund system. The same student gets different amounts in different colleges, or even different amounts in the same college. The odd example of bad practice is likely to obscure the advantages: the way in which they allow flexibility and decisions to be made quickly and effectively. If just a few colleges dump the administration on an over-worked guidance officer or use too much money to prop up their budget, it is inevitable that the auditors will find fault when they start looking. When they do, this could be the trigger to re-route the cash through ready-made national systems.
The same centralising processes could affect fees. Colleges set their own fees but could be pressured to standardise them. The Learning and Skills Act gives the national council of the same name powers to control fees on the courses it funds. Ministers have given two reasons for needing these powers. First of all, fees for poorer students need to be low enough to encourage access. And then, fees for employers need to be high enough to get a fair return. The skills council will not find it easy to use this power because college courses are complex. But it may not have a choice. Movement towards national entitlement for student support is likely to involve more national control of fees. A national system of learning accounts could replace the locally set fees and locally administered fee remission. And, if the finances can be sorted out, income contingent loans might be the means to encourage individual contributions.
This is for the future and will be to play for after the next election. The most important question about any proposal has to be whether it works. Centralised schemes iron out inequities, but they create new risks of large-scale waste and fraud. Just look at the benefits system.
Before moving to the future, it's worth looking at the present and asking some questions. Do education maintenance allowances help young people stay on and achieve? Do access funds reduce drop-out for financial reasons? Do individual learning accounts make a difference? Which of these schemes gives the biggest payback on their set-up and running costs? Should your answer to any of the first three questions be yes, then that's the model you should be choosing.
Julian Gravatt is registrar of Lewisham College, south-east Londone-mail: email@example.com