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Funding council sets out to redo its college SUMs

MAJOR changes are on the way affecting the funding of further education colleges which could produce significant losses and gains for individual courses and colleges.

The Scottish Further Education Funding Council is embarking on a four-month consultative exercise on how FE student activity is measured, including the weightings given to different subjects to reflect their costs.

The broad funding totals, based on a fixed cake of money divided by the number of students in each college, will not change. The shake-up affects only the way grants are allocated through SUMS (student units of measurement, each unit being the equivalent of 40 hours of teaching). But these are the important building blocks used by the funding council to decide how much money each college should receive each year, both for revenue and capital needs.

"We want to ensure colleges are funded to meet employers' and students' requirements and are not perverted by ancient assumptions behind the way the funding is allocated," David Wann, the council's deputy chief executive and director of funding, told The TES Scotland.

"We therefore want to be able to recognise significant differences in the resource requirements of different colleges. But the council also has to strike a balance between that and the need for transparency, simplicity and manageability in how the funding method operates."

The consultation is based on a study for the funding council by the Scottish Further Education Unit (SFEU). The council is not thirled to any of the report's conclusions but is commending it as "a good evidence-based report which offers a platform for discussion", in the words of Martin Fairbairn, depute director for FE funding.

The research has concluded that the weightings given to FE programmes, which create weighted SUMS known as WSUMS, must be overhauled since they are based on costs in Strathclyde's FE colleges in the late 1980s.

New weightings, however, will reduce differentials between subjects so that, for example, agriculture, horticulture and animal care courses could see funding fall by 11 per cent while support for the creative arts and design may rise by 10 per cent.

The report points out that FE subjects now tend to draw on common college resources for heir teaching in areas such as open or distance learning and information and communications technology. This means less variation in costs.

These new approaches have also led the study to suggest that resources should be distributed differently with teaching staff accounting for just 50 per cent of expenditure instead of 68 per cent. This is to reflect the fact that the number of support staff has risen and therefore should take 12 per cent of the cake rather than 7 per cent now. The same trend is behind the proposal that spending on central costs should double from 17 per cent to 30 per cent of the total. The share going to learning resources would remain the same at 8 per cent.

The other major change proposed by the SFEU is that there should no longer be a fixed tariff for full-time courses. Colleges told the researchers that such rigidity inhibits access initiatives and their ability to be flexible, at a time when there is a growing emphasis on part-time attendance.

The recommended new method would mean pricing SUMS on the actual rather than predetermined length of a full-time course, the same basis on which part-time provision is funded. But, to prevent this acting as an incentive towards "over-teaching" from developing longer programmes rather than recruiting new students, the report suggests a ceiling of 20 SUMS for the funding of non-advanced courses and 15 SUMS for advanced programmes. These reflect, respectively, the course lengths of Scottish Group Awards and Higher National diplomas or certificates.

Mr Fairbairn cautioned against assumptions that, for example, the agricultural colleges (Barony, Elmwood and Oatridge) could suffer disproportionately. "Agricultural colleges offer other subjects for a start. And any move away from fixed tariffs for full-time courses could benefit colleges like Barony which are now heavily into open learning."

Mr Wann says that the very earliest any changes could come about would be in the 2002-03 session. But he pledged: "The council has agreed that a key outcome is that the changes should be manageable."

The funding council plans to hold discussions with college principals in December on how changes will be managed, by which time it will have outlined its plans to implement them.

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