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Funding council wins praise

One in four colleges live in fear of their paymasters as they struggle to make ends meet, the first survey of attitudes towards the Further Education Funding Council has revealed.

Their feelings were summed up by one respondent who said they were "being blown backwards and forwards by the council's knee jerk reactions to changes in government policy".

The survey was commissioned by the council as part of its programme for more open and responsive handling of the further education sector.

The most critical colleges pointed to their own weak position in respect of financial or managerial ability. A quarter of the colleges responding saw themselves as managerially competent and financially sound. These colleges reported good relationships with the council.

The council commissioned independent research consultants, CRG, to find out what colleges thought of its work. Forty-eight colleges were contacted: nine declined to take part (seven because they had no time, one because it felt it could not be objective and one because it failed to respond to correspondence).

Overall, the council was credited with creating "a sector out of a shambles" after the lack of co-ordination prior to incorporation. Large colleges had the best relationships with the council, smaller ones saw it more of a threat and

felt they had less influence.

Sixth form colleges felt there was a lack of interest in them and their problems - such as competition with school sixth forms. Half the specialist institutions, such as agriculture colleges, complained that their inclusion in FE was often arbitrary and that they could have been in higher education.

Individual council officials were seen as helpful, very professional and genuinely interested in their work. The more direct or regular the relationship between the council and the college, the more positive was the perception.

Governors were concerned about excessive audit. One said: "We set the rules for the internal audit, then we have to appoint external auditors to check that they're doing what we asked them to do, then the council audits us and the external audit to check that the right type of audit is being done in the right way#201;"

Governors' views about the council's annual general meeting in London were mixed. Almost 80 per cent of those who commented thought the buffet was the best part - talking to people as opposed to being talked at.

Principals and governors thought the cost of clerks "policing" colleges was too high in proportion to the risk of misconduct.

Lecturers had few direct dealings with the council and used the survey to air grievances about their contracts, the pain of restructuring and loss of colleagues.

The view from the staffroom about the council is "fairly hostile, in that it is seen as having imposed practices and constraints on colleges without having paid any particular attention to the effects of these on staff-student relationships and what teachers claim to be their major responsibility - doing what is best for the student."

Comments were mostly favourable about financial issues, "firm but fair" being the treatment accorded to those with problems. But requests for data was a concern. Many colleges wondered what the council did with all the data, suggesting that if it actually made use of it all, it would be an extremely "powerful asset".

David Russell, the council's director of finance and corporate services described the survey as a significant development in the relationship with the sector. "There were many comments praising the council as well as some critical ones. The council has published an action plan to deal with the points raised. We believe this will help us to build on the good relationships we share with the sector."

Nearly 400 people were interviewed face-to-face in colleges across England. These included governors, principals, lecturers and members of senior management teams. A proportion of each of the five different types of FE colleges were selected to take part.

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