Minister puts the brake on post-16 mergers

Further and higher education minister Baroness Blackstone has called a halt to the growing number of mergers between colleges and universities.

Speaking at the launch of the Learning Partnerships document, published by the college and university employers at the Labour party conference in Blackpool this week, she said collaboration was important, but the FE sector should preserve its unique character.

"What we do not want to see is lots of mergers between higher and further education," she said. "Further education is important in its own right. It has its own mission. It should be seen as an independent and autonomous part of the post-school system rather than being sucked into our universities."

The Learning Partnerships document, reported in The TES last week, outlines plans for a new era of co-operation in which each sector would remain distinctive, in line with the Government's plea.

Elsewhere at the conference, new lifelong learning minister George Mudie was given a whirlwind introduction to the perceived problems facing the FE and HE sectors - sinking morale, macho management, the slow pace of investment and the apparent reluctance of ministers to give teeth to their plans for lifelong learning.

At a joint question time organised by the Committee of Vice- Chancellors and Principals, the college lecturers' union NATFHE and the Association of University Teachers, he was urged by Paul Mackney, general secretary of NATFHE, to end the "enervating five-year dispute" which has seen the FE sector top the strike league for two years running. "Otherwise you will have real problems bringing colleges on board," he warned.

Growing casualisation also threatened New Labour's plans to upgrade the country's skills, claimed Mr Mackney, adding: "Many people teaching New Deal are on temporary contracts and don't know if they'll be working next week. It's hard for them to be enthusiastic about it."

Mr Mudie was told, contract staff paid by the hour could not give the pastoral support needed by students - particularly those students from non-traditional backgrounds whom the Government wanted to bring into further and higher education.

Mr Mackney and Diana Warwick, chief executive of the CVCP, both urged legislation to make employers take lifelong learning seriously by giving workers the right to "paid education leave".

Ms Warwick said that employers had to be persuaded to take on more students for work experience to teach them the basic skills employers said they wanted.

But her strongest call was for cash to deliver the "revolution" heralded by ministers, and hinted at in Learning Partnerships - particularly if information technology was to be its key. "The serious disappointment of the comprehensive spending review so far has been the lack of serious infrastructure investment in IT," she said.

Mr Mudie, giving one of his first speeches since his appointment, suggested he had fully to get to grips with his brief. But his passion for his new subject was clear.

He also showed he was in tune with the teaching unions as he backed their concerns about macho management. "Nobody delivers under fear," he said.

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