FE fights its corner

THE forbearance and resilience of further education colleges knows no bounds. Year after year, at least since this Government came to power, principals and board chairs have welcomed ministers who soothe them with reassurances that their work is vital to delivering a raft of policies. Year after year, the minister of the day sets off to meet them bearing a gift of cash which usually comes with strings attached and is distributed to all colleges whether it is for their most pressing needs or not.

This year was no exception. Iain Gray, the Lifelong Learning Minister, told the annual conference of the Association of Scottish Colleges (page 34) that they were at the centre of various agendas to promote social inclusion, widen participation `by disadvantaged groups, enhance skill levels for the wider economic weal and contribute to lifelong learning. Yet rather than announce the crucial help colleges need to meet these stiff challenges, or at least scrap the insistence on cutting costs by 1 per cent every year, his largesse is confined to a one-off pound;10 million fund for expensive capital equipment.

When he went out of his way to tell his audience not to expect the same 50 per cent cash increase they have received since 1998 (which nobody was expecting in any case), he was clearly laying the ground for bad news. Although he made a strong point of saying he would be fighting FE's corner in the Executive's current spending review, he also pointedly underlined the strong lobbying that would emerge on behalf of the health service, transport and care of the elderly.

So the message to the ASC was clear: start lobbying hard. FE has a good story to tell about past achievements, both in terms of its own sector and in contributing substantially to the increase in higher education numbers which the Executive happily trumpeted last week. The colleges must also point to the inconsistencies in Government policy, of willing the end of stimulating demand for learning while failing to will the means.

The only clouds on the horizon are the shaky finances of many colleges and the sector's appalling industrial relations record. Although both of those arise in part from financial pressures, ministers obviously still need convincing that any extra money will be well spent.

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