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Colleges urged to enlist in car wars;Exclusive

Labour plans to put transport at the forefront of college expansion, report Ian Nash and Martin Whittaker.

Ministers plan to give colleges a major role in the design of local bus and rail services as part of the Government's effort to boost student numbers.

They see the collapse of rural transport services as a key deterrent to recruitment of school-leavers and potential adult returners. A dramatic rise in students from better-off families travelling to college by car has also increased congestion alarmingly.

David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, has planned for a 700,000 rise in further education student numbers, to more than 4 million, in two years.

All ministers have been told to assist deputy prime minister, John Prescott, in finding radical remedies to traffic problems: Mr Blunkett must find ways to cut students' car use.

One possibility is to offer all college students bus and rail discounts through the new "smart youth card" announced by Tony Blair this week. But that will only be effective if there is decent transport for poorer families.

Without it, ministers are concerned that the card could prove a huge embarrassment for Labour, as it would become yet another perk for the better off. The notion of a youth card, including an electronic cv, is not new, but Mr Blair neatly extended the idea to include perks such as cheap cinema tickets, giving his Labour party conference speech added zest.

Privately, senior party sources admitted in Bournemouth that the scheme had yet to be costed - a task that would prove very difficult. Services buying into the card, such as transport, would have to show a very rapid pay-back.

Recommendations giving colleges a central role in rail and bus planning are contained in a report commissioned by the Further Education Funding Council and leaked to The TES.

Eight out of 10 students interviewed for the study said transport was a problem and that bus services in their area were poor. Two-thirds of all potential students interviewed said the lack of public transport was a deterrent.

The report calls for a local planning forum of colleges, local authorities, bus and rail operators and user groups to improve efficiency and cut costs.

The FEFC targeted Devon for a study of typical problems of access to FE in rural areas. It includes the student survey carried out on behalf of North Devon College, which has 12,000 students, and Devon County Council.

The findings have yet to be published. But the leaked draft report says: "Colleges of FE are important generators of transport demand and traffic congestion, and must be incorporated as major players in local transport planning.

"Transport must be made an essential consideration in the planning of access to lifelong learning and strategies aimed at widening participation."

More than seven out of 10 current students said travelling hindered their education, with the same percentage saying they have been regularly late in the mornings because of delays.

Almost all students said going home after 4pm meant travel problems. Poor public transport is also a major disincentive to potential evening-class students. Nine out of 10 who did sign up depended on the car, with 70 per cent of car-users travelling alone.

The report shows a dramatic rise in transport costs since 1992 when colleges left LEA control and students had to pay for their travel. As a result, traffic congestion and college parking problems have increased sharply.

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