College underfunding, mismanagement and corruption could become things of the past if plans for a radical overhaul of post-16 education announced this week meet with ministerial approval.
The long-awaited Hodge report, the education and employment committee's blueprint for the future of further education, advocates a huge cash injection and a raft of new legislation which together could prove the catalyst for the biggest reforms to hit FE since incorporation in 1993.
The 50 recommendations of the committee, which took evidence from dozens of witnesses during its 11-month investigation, are designed to set clear priorities for the sector, increase student support, wipe out mismanagement and put colleges on an equal financial footing with schools and universities.
Chief among its reforms are bold proposals to replace child benefit with support grants for 16 to 19-year-olds in full-time education. "FE students get a raw deal compared to undergraduates," said committee chair Margaret Hodge MP. A new grant system would, she said, "give young people a real incentive to continue to learn".
The report also calls for pound;50m to be made available over the next four years to allow FE to play its full part in the lifelong learning revolution:
* pound;360m would pay for 430,000 of the 500,000 extra student places promised last year.
* pound;60m would go towards the improvement of buildings and purchase of IT equipment.
* pound;54m a year would keep colleges' efficiency savings tied to those expected of universities.
* pound;30m - with pound;40m for subsequent years - would help widen participation.
The report says the sector has suffered from lack of leadership and strategy. "There has been a significant hole in Government policy in respect of further education," it says. By contrast, "in both schools and higher education sectors it is absolutely clear what the Government requires and what it is prepared to pay for."
The report proposes much tighter controls over colleges' ability to set up franchised courses, which it says should be confined to the area served by the college unless the franchisee is a national employer or organisation, or the college is a specialist in the field and local provision is more expensive. Time limits should also be imposed on FEFC funding for employee training.
The report proposes greater accountability and transparency in administration following a number of highly publicised cases of mismanagement.
The appointment of an FE ombudsman "would do much to restore confidence in college governance amongst staff" and the FEFC should take a more pro-active role in tackling cases of mismanagement, it says.
College governing bodies should have an independent clerk, a more representative membership, and open meetings. A register of governors' interest should be kept and minutes of board meetings should be publicly available.
The report sounds an ominous warning for the Further Education Development Agency, questioning its value for money and proposing that its pound;10m funding be trimmed accordingly.
Colleges with local competition could also face an uncertain future - the report notes their proliferation in some areas and asks the Government to set clear criteria for mergers.
Margaret Hodge said the report presented Government with major challenges. "Further education is vital to its goal of creating a culture of lifelong learning. For too long FE has been the Cinderella of British education. This report...will help give it the high status it deserves."
John Brennan, head of FE development at the Association of Colleges, said the report was "probably the most wide-ranging examination of the state of the service that Parliament has ever undertaken.
"Funding issues are at the heart of what needs to be done and we are pleased that they have been given such prominence."
He anticipated that the proposals to rein in franchising would generate much debate over the exact criteria under which colleges could provide courses outside their immediate areas.
But he urged colleges considering mergers to do so only on educational grounds and "not simply because they have got themselves into financial difficulties".
Report details, page 35