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Cash questions cloud radical vision

College leaders this week backed proposals to increase access to further education contained in Helena Kennedy's major new report Learning Works.

Colleges were giving their reaction to the 80 wide-ranging proposals of the committee chaired by the prominent barrister. The report calls for a radical overhaul of post-school funding to bring an army of people back into education.

While the report calls on the Government to find new money for FE, the Association of Colleges has gone further by suggesting that cash may have to come from the richer university sector.

AOC policy director John Brennan said colleges were not calling for direct cuts in university spending. He argued instead that money may flow from reforms being considered by Sir Ron Dearing's review of higher education, publication of which is expected later this month. Controversial proposals to introduce university top-up fees and reform student grants could release funds, he said.

Mr Brennan said that the Government's aim of increasing the proportion of national income devoted to education would also help pay for the huge expansion in adult education recommended by Helena Kennedy.

But he insisted that ministers create a level playing field for student support, and said fees for higher and further education should be consistent.

Some principals, however, were clear in their demand for radical action.

Keith Wymer, principle of Bilston Community College in the West Midlands, attacked educational "elitists" and said that there should be "no retreat" from the idea of cutting money for universities.

He said: "It is not good enough to provide the well-off with three years of higher education while limiting the unemployed and unqualified to the six months of Welfare to Work.

"The new Government must also call off immediately the attack on community education, which intensified when the previous government cut colleges' funding in January."

Despite unease about funding there were warm words for Ms Kennedy's main recommendations.

Mr Brennan said: "I think the reaction will be very positive. It will open up opportunities and access both for 16 to 19-year-olds and for adults. It chimes with the values people in further education would hold."

Hilary Cowell, president of the Association of Principals of Colleges, said: "The principles which underpin the key findings will be supported by all colleges which have long understood that all learning is beneficial for economic prosperity and social unity. The commitment to equity is particularly welcome and must be realised.

"Additional help for individual students must be made available to help support them in their studies."

Dan Taubman, assistant secretary at the lecturers' union, NATFHE, said: "We warmly welcome the Kennedy report, but the biggest question is whether the sector can survive.

"We can probably live with a finite amount for education, but it has to be more than at present, because higher education is cracking up, schools are cracking up and FE certainly is."

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