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Key is facing up to our difficulties

What does the FE sector want from government? We must address this question as the general election is nearly upon us. More money is an obvious answer and one which is easy for the Association of Colleges to articulate. But is it realistic? I fear not.

The electorates of western democracies expect tax reductions combined with greater value for money from the state. At next week's inaugural AOC conference in Cardiff, college chief executives and chairmen will have the opportunity to question politicians in person. So why do I feel uneasy?

We have a vibrant, successful story to tell about the FE sector. None the less, I have a niggling feeling that our sector fears for its collective future. Worse we all may be responsible for having failed to articulate its needs.

Rather than fly about helplessly, we need to recognise that a properly harnessed and effectively focused FE collective influence has enormous potential - if only we deploy it wisely. Hence the creation of the AOC.

If we are serious about the need for the FE sector to demand its fair share of a relatively declining tax base, we must be clear about the guiding values of the AOC.

The first building block on which the AOC bases its dialogue with the government is its warm embrace of the basic operational freedoms that corporate independence has given to colleges.

Independent FE corporations were created to encourage responsive, innovative colleges providing education and training opportunities to satisfy local, regional, even national needs. The record of colleges since incorporation is evidence this trust was well placed.

With the defence of corporate freedom firmly entrenched, the AOC can then defend self regulation of our sector. In this we emphasise to the funding regimes that we are guided by two acceptable pressures: quality and price. Within such a framework, our colleges can strive to deliver the growth targets established by government. But times are harder and tension is mounting.

We surely do not want to see college leaders resorting to in-fighting as to the merits of one particular ALF (average level of funding) as opposed to another. Such debate merely invites the Treasury hard men to reduce everyone's funding.

Rather we need a realistic response to the funding crisis. To ask for more public funds for the sake of it is negative. It automatically kills off the funding debate. One way forward would be for us to face up to real difficulties. Are we satisfied we are doing everything we can to cut the drop-out rate? Are we satisfied with actual class sizes? Are we satisfied our managerial skills are as sharp as they need to be in an ever increasing competitive environment?

Recognition of our own problems could initiate a new deal with the Department for Education and Employment. We will go for growth. But we must have matched funding - otherwise National Targets for Education and Training will become a myth.

Roger Ward is chief executive of the Association of Colleges.

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