The Great Train to Gain Robbery

Plugged shortfall suggests higher education has grabbed pound;100m surplus

The perfect crime, they say, is one where no-one ever discovers a crime has been committed. Second best is one where the crime is discovered too long after the event for anyone to be caught.

And so it might have been with the pound;100 million-plus that has gone missing from the 2007-8 further education budget, if someone had not taken a closer look at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills' spending for the year (FE Focus, August 29).

Funds not used for Train to Gain have been redirected - but not back into mainstream FE.

Train to Gain was never going to be an unqualified success. Skills development rather than full-level qualifications was what employers wanted, and the scheme's lack of flexibility meant a limited take-up was inevitable.

Surrounded by bureaucracy, beset by a brokerage system that never worked, and without any real employer enthusiasm, it was impossible for the "demand-led" system to deliver on the scale anticipated. This wouldn't have been a problem were new money involved. But no. Train to Gain funding came from reductions elsewhere in the FE budget - most of it by removing previously funded qualifications that were in demand from adults. The net result has been the reverse of what was intended. Far fewer people now obtain relevant skills or qualifications than before.

As we move towards a recession, more adults will be considering their future, which may or may not be with their present employer. So the solution might seem simple: redirect the money left over by Train to Gain back into adult FE. Allow colleges to work with employers, community groups and individuals to meet real needs. Invest more in adult career guidance. Encourage adults to improve their skills.

Sadly, that has not happened. There is debate as to where the money has gone, but a shortfall in higher education support funding for the year has somehow been covered.

Sanskrit and Greek and a carefree lifestyle for the under-25s are safe - IT skills for the 50-plus generation looking for work or a career change are not.

And the same thing is likely to happen next year. Train to Gain funding is increasing - the squeeze elsewhere continuing. There are already signs that employers' interest in training is moving down the agenda as they face more pressing issues. Would anyone hazard a guess as to what next year's shortfall might be and what will happen to the money?

All parties seem to recognise the huge successes of the college sector over the past 15 years and want these to continue. This has been reflected in the amount of capital allocated to renew the infrastructure and the support that ministers have shown in other areas. But if schemes such as Train to Gain are launched without considering potential pitfalls and, more importantly, there is no plan B, the whole sector will suffer.

Common sense must replace dogma. At the very least, Train to Gain should be developed to include those out of work or who wish to change jobs. The money can then remain in the sector which needs it most. Consider it crime prevention, if nothing else.

David Collins, President, Association of Colleges.

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