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It all comes down to juggling the purse-strings

After almost 30 years on various boards of management and college councils at Stevenson College in Edinburgh, I am finally stepping down, albeit with a sense of nostalgia. My involvement in further education goes back even longer, first as a student and then as a teacher. That the sector has changed dramatically, and for the better, goes without saying. When I first entered it the ambience was positively Dickensian. Indeed Gradgrind himself would have found the approach to education somewhat old-fashioned.

I had some doubts about the transfer of control from local authorities. In retrospect, incorporation was both timely and necessary. Nevertheless there are aspects of the system which bear scrutiny. Some recent events together with disconcerting variations in the quality of provision and management between Scottish colleges give cause for concern. While the Scottish Further Education Funding Council has had a profound impact on the sector as a whole, there continue to be gaps and inconsistencies in the system.

To take one example, Stevenson is about to have funding withdrawn from its community-based English as a second language courses. Since the college charges no fees for this work no income is forthcoming. In spite of increased funding and wider access - 50 per cent of students are aged over 26 and 60 per cent are female - the colleges are still regarded by some as second-rate institutions. Among the broader educational community there is still an uncertainty about what they actually do.

Funding remains the crucial issue. Whatever criticisms can be levelled at the funding council it should have been set up at the time of incorporation. Given recent events and the need to restructure colleges mergers seem inevitable. It will be difficult to avoid compulsory redundancies.

A great deal of college management revolves around money. A recent benchmarking exercise undertaken by a firm of management consultants shoed clearly that Stevenson was costing pound;1 million more than the average Scottish college. Of course there are reasons, but the funding council calls the tune and drastic restructuring will be necessary.

The council has stipulated that any increase is intended to maintain the quality of teaching, improve college buildings, improve bursaries for poorer students and encourage wider access in order to improve literacy and numeracy skills. Fine aspirations no doubt, but staff constantly complain about the paperwork. They would prefer more time for teaching.

The recent report Learning for Life outlines the ways in which colleges can contribute to lifelong learning, enhancing the employability and skills of people of all ages. Over the next three years Stevenson, in common with other colleges, will concentrate on providing the widest possible access to meet the requirements of "social justice" and "social inclusion".

Yet in spite of increased funding, FE colleges remain poor sisters in comparison to the universities. You can usually judge an institution by the quality of its library provision and the social facilities for students. At Stevenson, a recent HMI report found the "accommodation for learning" over nine subject areas to be "fair" and in one case "unsatisfactory".

When I first came into FE it was still very much an era of chalk and talk. Today the funding council hopes to create a culture where expertise with ICT is the norm. Some additional money has been made available but many colleges still fail to provide adequate online learning.

It is readily recognised that a serious skills shortage persists in Scotland. Colleges cannot work miracles or solve problems of social inclusion. What they can do is to provide people of all ages with education and training of a high quality and so play a part in developing the Scottish economy.

Henry Cowper was a senior counsellor with the Open University.

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