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McLeish sets out priorities

THE Scottish Executive has announced an extra pound;28.4 million for further education colleges in the next financial year beginning in August. This represents a 9 per cent increase to bring the total to pound;351 million, but it is intended to be spent on the Government's priorities and is not an open cheque.

The cash was not unexpected, however, and is effectively the second tranche of the extra pound;214 million provided for colleges under the comprehensive spending review which reallocated funding over a three-year period.

Henry McLeish, Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, none the less deemed the news sufficiently important to underline it again by calling a press conference yesterday (Thursday), at which he was flanked by leaders of the Scottish Further Education Funding Council. The funding council will be responsible for distributing the money to individual colleges which will be informed by letter on April 26.

Mr McLeish outlined the high expectations the Executive has of colleges in contributing to "education, social justice and the Scottish economy". He thus made it very clear that ministers expect to see a return for their money, but also acknowledged that some colleges have "severe financial problems" that are now being tackled.

In his letter to funding council chiefs spelling out details of the spending allocations, Mr McLeish said that he expected them to continue to keep a close watch on colleges' financial health "to ensure that all colleges operate sound, reliable systems of financial control to ensure propriety of expenditure and effective accountability. Where a breakdown in those systems is identified, the council should take action to remedy matters."

The Government has once more given instructions that priorities for spending must continue to centre on widening access for students, stabilising college finances, allocating capital investment and developing information technology. Most of the extra pound;28 million is being directed to these areas.

Other elements of the packag will also be earmarked such as pound;1.75 million for Higher Still developments in FE and a pound;3 million fund for "strategic developments" such as encouraging collaboration between colleges.

Mr McLeish stressed again the importance he attaches to colleges' role in bringing more students from disadvantaged backgrounds into education and therefore making a contribution to the Government's key lifelong learning agenda. Colleges, he told The TES Scotland, have "a superb future" in meeting the needs of local communities and of business. He hoped they would not have "an inferiority complex" in relation to the universities.

The Government has set a target of expanding student places by 40,000 by 2002. Its grant settlement for the current year included sums for the first 8,000 of these. In his letter to the funding council, Mr McLeish said he expected the remaining 32,000 places to be filled over the next two years.

He wants it to monitor take-up of these places and report to him at the end of each year, with details of under-represented or disadvantaged groups from which the students come.

The colleges' main concern is that the added "entry" and course costs of recruiting and retaining such students may not be adequate. Mr McLeish has gone some way to offer reassurance by calling on the funding council for a speedy start to its review of the distribution formula which decides how much grant each college receives.

He expects the review to address additional costs of accommodating students with learning difficulties or disabilities.

He also announced in his letter that he wants a report from the funding council by December on its plans for "rationalisation of the shape and structure of the sector, to enhance the provision of further education in a regional context and deliver best value for public funds".

But it remains to be seen whether the council will bite the bullet of college closures, particularly in Glasgow whose provision is more generous than in the other three main cities.

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