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Labour 'U-turn' on Ulster colleges

Northern Ireland is to remove the province's 17 colleges from local authority control, a move originally planned by the Tories, reports Paul McGill.

The Labour Government has decided to press ahead with Tory legislation and make colleges in Northern Ireland self-governing, despite attacking the plans when in opposition.

Tony Worthington, Northern Ireland's education minister, will use the draft legislation to remove the 17 colleges from local authority control next April. He will also give them another Pounds 1.5 million this year to prepare for the change.

His surprise move has delighted Conservatives who see it as a U-turn by the Labour party which, they say, has donned yet another piece of Tory clothing. Mr Worthington's predecessor, Michael Ancram, had announced that control of colleges would be taken away from the education and library boards but failed to get it through before the general election.

When in opposition, Labour, the boards and the unions had sharply criticised Mr Ancram's draft order. They said it gave the Education Department excessive powers over colleges, lacked strategic vision, and failed to give sufficient emphasis to local communities, as distinct from business interests.

But Mr Worthington this week told colleges he was pressing ahead with the legislation. "There are aspects of the draft order I would change if I were starting from scratch, but this would make it difficult to meet the timetable. The structure we propose may be less than ideal, but this reflects where we are starting from."

In opposition, Mr Worthington had indicated his support for a funding council, shared between further and higher education, as in Wales. It was seen as an easier mechanism to adapt to local needs once Labour's regional strategy was worked out. In England, for example, power may be devolved to regional committees.

But now he says this would delay self-governing status. It was important to end the uncertainty facing colleges, a view that was welcomed by principals and governors when he addressed them at the annual conference of the Northern Ireland Colleges' Consultative Forum.

He has, however, insisted on several differences in the incorporation model compared with the previous government. There will be emphasis on the need for a "strategic framework" for the entire sector, under which colleges should co-operate as well as compete and make a greater contribution to industrial development and to tackling long-term unemployment.

He stressed the need for positive steps to end the despair for the 17 per cent of 16 to 25-year-olds in the province who were not in education, training or employment.

Mr Worthington plans to set up a non-statutory body between the department and colleges to advise on strategic planning. This may evolve into a funding council at some stage.

A further difference from the Tory vision, he said, would be the need for colleges to be more flexible in responding to students, and to "the social and economic needs of the communities they serve".

The minister, who differs from his predecessors in being responsible also for the training functions of the Department of Economic Development, will give impetus to the idea of lifelong learning by setting up several reviews of further education and training.

There will be a review of relations between the Education Department and the Training and Employment Agency and Sir Ron Dearing's proposals on links between FE and HE. He also intends to consider criticisms of the draft order before tabling it again. But he warned that only "relatively minor" amendments could be made because of the urgency.

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