Make your hay today

All the signs are that further education can look forward to three years of plenty, followed by three years of famine. They may not be on the biblical scale mentioned in Genesis, but they are none the less significant.

Ministers will not let their blueprint for the new Learning and Skills Council and its 47 local arms fail. Hence the instant increase of at least 10 per cent on current budgets when they take over next April.

As Julian Gravatt argues on page 36 of this magazine, the Government's priorities for social inclusion, the information technology revolution and the need to kick-start a wider range of partnership initiatives, all point to more Treasury cash. Colleges are likely to do relatively well from the Spending Review next month, with growth pledges up to 2003. But don't hold your breath. They will not be as generous as the last round of increases.

There are other indications, too, that the college, not the university, will benefit most under the next Government, whatever its political hue. There are greater opportunities to direct higher education towards private cash.

After that, "education, education,education" will be yesterday's election pledge. Tony Blair's massive commitments to the health and welfare of a rapidly greying population will be coming home to roost. With health having such a high political profile, would any hopeful Opposition make an election pledge to spend less than Labour?

Then we shall see other funding streams drawn on for FE:individual learning accounts, pressures on employers to pay more for public-sector training - or even a renewed hiving-off of learning to the private sector. What happens in higher education today follows in FE tomorrow.

The colleges that will do best post-20034 will be those that have invested most wisely in the years of plenty, that have forged new public-private partnerships and broken the elusive barriers to widening participation.

A final thought for those involved in any of the 40 merger proposals round the country: vice-chancellors are now predicting closure of whole universities within four years, as the necessary public funding finally runs out. There will be no cash available to bail out the prodigal sons if that happens.

Ian Nash TES FE Editor

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