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Give credit where due

Positive survey provokes colleges to seek more autonomy from the Government. Steve Hook reports

Colleges have called for funding chiefs to back off in the wake of a student satisfaction survey which puts them up with the best of private industry.

The Association of Colleges said results of the survey, commissioned by the Learning and Skills Council, should have been released with a fanfare.

The quango chose not to release the highlights of the survey findings at the AoC's conference in Birmingham last month, claiming the news would be swamped by other items on the agenda. They appeared briefly as a document on the LSC website after the conference was finished but were quickly removed.

Figures in the document show that 94 per cent of FE students and the same proportion of work-based learners were satisfied with what they were getting.

Their removal was down to a "typographical error", according to the LSC.

But, although this was soon corrected, the document was not due to be reinstated on the web until this month.

In the document, Bryan Sanderson, chairman of the LSC, said: "The survey findings are something of which our partners in the sector can feel proud.

"The survey proves that we are progressing from a strong base in our drive to improve the quality of post-16 education in this country."

It was Mr Sanderson who commissioned the research - called the National Learner Satisfaction Survey. From his business background, he told the LSC two years ago that organisations, private or public, would never meet their customers' needs unless they were prepared to canvass their opinions.

Far from providing colleges with a wake-up call about failing to measure up to the standards of the private sector, the survey shows they compare with the very best companies.

The AoC will be keen to capitalise on the survey as it seeks to promote the standing of further education in the eyes of the Government.

But with the prospect of what is expected to be an austere Budget, with a tight public-sector spending review to follow, colleges are focusing on bureaucracy rather than cash.

John Brennan, chief executive of the AoC, said: "A company would be delighted with satisfaction levels like these.

"It will help to reinforce the view that the college sector is doing the right thing by its students.

"The Government needs to look at the systems which are used to manage the sector, and these findings point to the fact that there should be a more relaxed approach from the Government and the LSC."

Commenting on the lack of fanfare behind the results, an AoC insider, who asked not to be identified, put it more bluntly, saying: "They are trying to depress expectations about the comprehensive spending review.

"They don't want to see stories of praise for the sector going out in the press."

Satisfaction levels were even higher, at 96 per cent, among students in adult education and non-accredited adult and community learning.

Most students said they were satisfied with their lecturers, and their attitude towards education was improved by the experience of FE.

An increasing number cite financial difficulties as a problem.

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