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The enemy is underfunding

Further education colleges have much to contribute and much to gain from the + change of government. The last government recognised the need for vocational + education and training to remedy Britain's chronic deficit in intermediate or + lower level qualifications and skills but did not take the steps needed to + improve the situation. It would be a pity if the new ministerial team at the + Scottish Office was put off FE by the glaring picture painted by Joe Eyre of + the College Lecturers' Association last week.Let us start with what can be + agreed. "The incoming Government will have to address [the] central problem of + sectoral underfunding" for colleges, Mr Eyre states. Indeed so. The + Association of Scottish Colleges made a strong case to previous ministers for + more realistic financial provision for the sector. Some 9 per cent growth in + activity and gains of more than 6 per cent in efficiency in 1995-96 went + unrewarded. Worse, colleges were expected to meet all the costs of capital + projects (including renewal of buildings and equipment) from their recurrent + budgets, and assumed to be able to deliver major new initiatives such as Higher+ Still by dipping into the same reduced pot.None of this is sustainable. + Systems of funding that focus only on growth and efficiency put at risk + quality, facilities and responsiveness to changing needs. The case for + increased funding in order to address the new Government's priorities for young+ people, lifelong learning and welfare-to-work policies is unanswerable.To + claim a strategic role and advance its claims for funding, FE has to be a + leader of change. Principals and boards of management are bound to think not + just in terms of survival of their college but improvement of the range, + flexibility and attractiveness of their services. There is no "conscript" + market as there is for schools. Customers have to be won in the face of + competition with other sectors of education and private training providers.The + new Government is committed to "develop a new strategic framework for Scottish + further education to improve co-ordination between colleges and maximise access+ to all courses without needless competition between colleges". This will be + accomplished only if there is a much clearer strategy for the sector and enough+ funding to deliver it. But there is a tantalising range of issues to discuss + with the new Government as to how this will be pursued.Since incorporation, + colleges have not been restricted by formal catchment areas or external + prescription as to the courses they can offer. In theory, students and + employers are much freer to choose the courses or colleges they want. But how + can colleges respond to student demand and employer requirement when full-time + higher education is capped by decree (other than in the Highlands and Islands + colleges) and by a fixed cash limit on bursaries for non-advanced vocational + education?Strategy implies a clear rationale for Government policy and funding.+ Will we get one? A review of the system for allocating recurrent funds to + colleges was agreed by the previous Government and is now in progress. The old + game of just "allocating the available funds" is played out. Colleges need + explicit priorities and a stable unit of funding on which to plan and grow for + the future. There also needs to be much greater openness about the non-formula + elements of funding.The quickest and best of quick fixes would be a major + injection of additional resources. There is a strong case for this and ASC will+ press it. We intend to push FE much higher up the list of ministers' + priorities. Even if we are told there is "no new money" overall, there is still+ a battle to be fought on reallocation in early years and for extra in the + years beyond. The ASC is happy to ally itself with the lecturers and support + staff unions in arguing the case for better funding in Scotland. The + universities and other higher education institutions have benefited greatly + from the fact that principals and unions have sung the same refrain about the + pressures on their teaching and research. It is very galling that the + institutions funded by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council got + respite from efficiency cuts in 1997-98 despite under-recruitment of students. + The answer is to show that FE can and does deliver a more needed quality and + range of services at a better price.The new Government has promised a quite + different tone and style of conducting public business in Scotland. If the + Secretary of State and his colleagues are in genuine listening mode, the + claims of FE will not go unheard. Mixed messages about the problems or + dissension within the sector will make it harder to get the answers that most + matter on strategy and funding.And so to matters of disagreement. Some of the + local disputes with lecturing staff to which Mr Eyre refers may have been + resolved by the time this article appears. Many staff would like their pay to + go up automatically and their conditions of service to be preserved or enhanced+ without any qualification. Can it really be assumed that structures and + conditions of service designed for very different circumstan ces will stand up + to the new challenges colleges face? Entrenchment is not the best approach for + any college or the long-term future of its staff. Current negotiations in + colleges are sensitive and difficult for all those involved. Ritual + denunciations, especially when these are based on inaccurate accounts of + events, do not help anyone. Negotiators on the management side know that + quality of teaching is the main asset of a college. What they face is insistent+ pressure from the Scottish Office to bring unit costs down and to eliminate + operating deficits. Imputing motives to the participants is both unfair and a + distraction from real issues. Jobs will not be protected if colleges are + allowed by their managers to slip deeper into crisis.Of course, there is scope + for improving relationships within colleges as well as outside or between + colleges. These issues can be tackled effectively - and calmly - without major + disruption.FE is a major national public service provided locally in Scotland + by colleges. Many of the colleges are the premier educational institutions in + their community. Pressures for change are intense and are unlikely to diminish.+ Principals and boards of management need a fair opportunity to get to grips + with the new challenges and opportunities before damning judgments are made.Tom+ Kelly is chief officer, Association of Scottish Colleges.

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