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Editor's comment

What price one wonders would ministers have exacted from colleges had the institutions failed to hit their targets? After all, success has proved painful enough. Colleges have been told they are too successful and must set their sights lower.

The Learning and Skills Council, on the one hand, praises the collective effort, which has seen youth and adult achievements rise "significantly".

On the other hand, it touts around colleges for cuts of up to 7 per cent while talking of the need "to ensure that our finite resources are invested to best effect."

Any hopes of the Government coming to the rescue were scotched when Alan Johnson, the further and higher education minister, said there would be no "pouch of fairy dust" at Natfhe's Blackpool conference. Echoing the LSC's sentiments, he said: "It is important to recognise that these (funding shortfalls) are essentially the problems of success."

In a bald electioneering statement verging on blackmail, he offered a stark alternative between Labour's strategy and the Conservatives' real-terms cuts. Such frankness might be seen as refreshing. At least he is playing the honest broker and telling it how it is.

Unfortunately, that does not ease the pain. For those with memories stretching back to 1991, it is yet another dose of official blame, with providers penalised for failing to perform short-term miracles. When the pounds cease to stretch far enough, past success is redefined as failure.

It happened with franchising, 16 to 19 recruitment, basic skills and adult learning. It is like saying: "This is no longer desirable; you should not have been doing so much of it." Wrapped in the emperor's clothing of record growth and targets reached, ministers dismiss those making justified complaints as "whingers".

But this time things are different. The post-16 cash crisis will become as big an issue as schools funding has been. This is not the prediction of a handful of whingers but the private concerns of many of the ministers'

advisers. Middle England has a far sharper eye on college and training provider needs than it had before incorporation. Core courses for 16 to 19-year-olds are being hit and planning towards the next spending round is being revised, as the letter from the LSC to colleges (see page 1) last week revealed.

All the talk of how well the British economy begs the question: "Why can't a little more be invested in this vital area."

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