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Island campus mobilises against funding council

The Lifelong Learning Minister is being urged to intervene to prevent a threat to the future of the Benbecula campus of Lews Castle College, Colaisde Bheinn na Faoghla.

Campaigners have pointed out to Jim Wallace that his letter of guidance to the Scottish Further Education Funding Council, which they accuse of forcing cuts on the centre, urges it to make "culture and creativity" a priority - when Benbecula is doing just that in reinforcing support for the Gaelic language and the creative arts.

The college is attempting to fight its way to financial fitness and is in talks with the Scottish Further Education Funding Council. It is the only college in Scotland predicted by the Auditor General to be in a "very weak" financial position by 2006, the target year for all colleges to achieve financial security.

Lews Castle College faces unique problems among incorporated colleges: not only is it remote but it also has a small population base and the supply of students is the determining factor in funding. Students themselves say that the college's problems stem from "historic underfunding", not mismanagement.

The council is reviewing the way it supports colleges in remote areas, but will not reach its conclusions until next year. Lews Castle's pound;1.4 million main grant this session includes pound;338,108 in recognition of the additional costs of operating a remote college, a 17 per cent increase on the previous year.

In addition, the council's current funding includes pound;137,000 to help bring the college to financial security and pound;150,500 to support the waiving of fees for students from low-income families - plus an emergency injection of pound;250,000.

Meanwhile the college has had to axe 10 posts, three of which involved compulsory redundancies. The community learning networks co-ordinator, who has management and teaching duties at the Benbecula centre, is one of those to go.

These duties will be covered by existing staff, including David Green, the principal, who will fly from Stornoway to Benbecula to ensure there is "an appropriate management focus" for Benbecula and another of the college's centres on Barra.

Mr Green says that the move is a response to the conditions attached by the funding council to its pound;250,000 emergency package. This requires it to reduce "unsustainable costs" in its learning centres (the college also has an outpost on Harris).

The Benbecula centre, seen as a flagship expansion to extend the reach of FE to inaccessible areas, has now effectively been put on standstill and no "substantial new courses" are to be offered.

Mr Green points out that the college currently has more students than its funding targets which means new developments would have no supporting income. But he added: "We will vary the part-time provision in the Uists and elsewhere to meet changing demand, and we will offer new courses if alternative income streams can be identified."

Students at the FE centre in the Uists, 100 miles away from the main campus in Stornoway, have enlisted support from a number of MSPs and MPs in a campaign which claims that the cuts planned at Benbecula will reduce spending by a mere pound;15,000 when these costs are set against the savings.

Mr Green rejects this "as a very inaccurate calculation based on incomplete information and speculation". The real savings would be considerably greater.

The funding council acknowledges the difficulties facing colleges in areas like the Western Isles, and comments that this is why it has embarked on its "remoteness review".

It also points out that 8 per cent of its allocation for remoteness funding goes to Lews Castle.

The college agrees that the council has been financially supportive but disagrees with the funding link it makes between social inclusion and remoteness, and it wants the former reviewed as well as the latter.

"Some areas of Scotland are remote and have very serious social inclusion issues to contend with," Mr Green comments, "and some are remote but do not face the same social inclusion issues."

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