Government urged to get a grip post-16

The lot of the FE student may improve if the report of the independent commission is heeded. Neil Munro reports. Further education students get a raw deal and their financial support should be "radically overhauled," the independent Commission on Scottish Education has concluded.

Its "Learning to Succeed" report recommends that funding for FE students should be "aligned" with that in higher education. The HE proposals involve students paying for part of their tuition as well as their maintenance , but the report is unclear as to what this alignment would mean for FE.

The commissioners admit privately that FE was not their strong suit. Expertise on schools and HE was well represented among their membership, with an education committee chairman and a former university principal as well as a retired director of education who is chairman of a university court. None of the commissioners had any background in FE.

But Malcolm Green, Glasgow's education chairman who is also a university lecturer, says they were sufficiently aware of the issues to acknowledge that "the Government has to get a grip on the mismash of financial support for post-16 education".

Dick Louden, Strathclyde's former depute director of education who was the commission's secretary, said their feeling was that they should wait for the outcome of the Dearing inquiry into higher education to see what lessons should be applied to FE.

But Mr Louden added: "Whichever way you look at it, whether FE students are part-time, full-time, young or mature, they get a raw deal".

The Association of Scottish Colleges welcomed the commissions's recognition of "the problem of attrition by 'efficiency' cuts". It added that the level of funding, due to be cut by 12 per cent in real terms over the next three years, would not sustain the Government's own targets or the desirable improvements sought by the commission.

The report says that student bursaries are now paid for one year only. "This is unfortunate. Students who achieve regular attendance and satisfactory progress need, and deserve, the assurance that their funding will not be peremptorily withdrawn. "If public subsidy has to be restricted in this way, the only fair alternative is surely to consider financial provision for FE students in a manner similar to HE".

The commission also calls for Government action over the general funding formula for FE colleges. It suggests that the system of student units of measurements (SUMs, in which one unit equates to one 40-hour module and which are intended to measure a college's "student activity") reinforces the "endless era of financial restraint" facing FE - Government funding for the sector has increased by just 0.6 per cent in the current year.

The report says: "The system appears unfair to smaller colleges which incur fixed costs such as administration. It would surely be preferable to set a basic allowance for administrative overheads, rather than place total reliance on SUMs." It notes Dundee College's Pounds 500,000 loss this year as a result of the college's comparatively high unit costs.

The commissioners also suggested a feasibility study of a single funding council for FE and HE. College principals have until now resisted a funding council for FE, partly because they enjoy good relations with the Scottish Office's FE funding unit and partly because they suspect they would have to pay for it.

But the commission was attracted by the argument from the National Union of Students that a single funding council covering both sectors would diminish the FEHE divide. The report favours a single tertiary sector as the logical extension of recent developments such as improved access to HE via FE and recognition given for prior learning or attainment.

More generally the commissioners note that the incorporation of colleges and the devolution of budgets to schools has created the potential for competition. Local authorities should therefore take the lead in ensuring there is collaboration between colleges and schools in their areas; otherwise there would be duplication. Objective careers guidance could be jeopardised if competition is given free reign, it adds.

The commission also wants "cohesion and articulation" between FE and higher education. It takes a cautious view of franchising arrangements, under which colleges teach parts of degree courses, observing that "we would not wish to see colleges divert their resources into franchising to such an extent that their basic mission is in any way compromised".

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