Convergence plan 'unthinkable'

Low-spending colleges are demanding that the FEFC speeds up moves to introduce equal funding. Ben Russell reports.

Principals descended into cash war this week as low-spending colleges demanded an immediate move to equal funding.

They are furious that many colleges get substantially more for similar work. And they have demanded that funding chiefs impose a level playing field from August next year.

The Further Education Funding Council is consulting principals on plans to equalise college funding by 2000, or 2002 at the latest, but low-spending colleges say they have lost patience and are demanding a dramatic acceleration of the process.

At present, colleges get different levels of funding for each so-called unit of work they carry out, varying between Pounds 12 and Pounds 33 a unit.

Under FEFC plans, 90 per cent of colleges will have to hit the average cash-per-unit of Pounds 15.75. The average level of funding (ALF) stands at just over Pounds 18.

But Andrew Middleton, principal of Stamford College in Lincolnshire, has written to the 250 colleges that have an ALF below Pounds 18.50 calling for funding-per-unit to be equalised within a year.

He said principals were already offering support, and estimated that more than 150 colleges would press for an immediate move to equal funding.

He said: "We believe we have been underfunded and to ask us to tolerate another four years of relative deprivation is unacceptable."

Mr Middleton, who led the 74 Group of low-funded colleges in an unsuccessful call for reform last year, added: "We think four years has been more than reasonable and the idea of another four or six years before convergence is just unthinkable."

The pressure for a fast track to convergence has met with little support from funding chiefs in the past. And the latest consultation circular makes it clear that the FEFC favours a three-year run-up to funding equality, a position backed by the Association of Colleges in its response.

High-spending colleges have already thrown their hands up in horror at the FEFC's three-year plan, warning of severe potential problems ahead.

And Dick Evans, principal of Stockport College, said the new crash convergence proposal would be "catastrophic".

He said: "This is utterly selfish. It will destroy the sector, and not just high-ALF colleges."

He said there were serious questions over whether the ALF was a fair and accurate measure of spending, adding that there were correlations between high ALF, local conditions, and certain types of courses.

"The sector is in a very fragile state," he said. "People should be thinking about what's good for the sector and the country, not trying to divide and rule."

Funding council officials argue that the withdrawal of expansion cash for colleges, the latest public expenditure settlement and the financial ill health of about one in five colleges effectively rule out any crash move to a level playing field.

"For these reasons the option of seeking to converge ALFs over a shorter period than three years has been discounted by the council, as it would almost certainly involve the council introducing a series of safety net features, " a council spokesman said.

But Alan Birks, principal of South Birmingham College said the disruption already caused to colleges this year made it an ideal time to push convergence through.

And Martin Wright, principal of Kendal College, said: "It's not right and it's not fair. The chap down the road could be getting Pounds 1 million a year more for doing the same work. Over three years that's Pounds 3m more in the bank. Those of us sitting in that position are fed up waiting."

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