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Ministers struggle to call the piper's tune

The formula used to distribute funds to the colleges, including the ICT money, will remain unchanged for at least a year. The funding council had been expected to review the funding model which would then reshape the next allocation of grant for 2001-02. But it says it does not have time to do so before finalising the figures in April.

The council had been investigating the complexities surrounding the weightings given to different FE subjects and the way funds are handed out.

It had also been considering what funding values to attach to an FE qualification as opposed to HE. Another factor is whether different levels and modes of study should attract differential funding.

The council had been told last March by Henry McLeish, the then Lifelong Learning Minister, that he wanted to ensure the funding methodology did not get in the way of the Executive's widening access agenda - an extra 40,000 FE students are to be funded between 1999-2002.

Mr McLeish was particularly keen that the funding formula should encourage colleges to attract more "expensive" students such as those who have special needs or who need extended learning support.

One of the resons for the delay in arriving at a new formula, apart from the complexity of the issues, is that the funding council has promised to consult colleges. Ironically, the colleges have told the council that they are in danger of being over-consulted. Their resources are under strain as they race to make submissions and other returns to the council, they say.

The colleges make their comment in yet another response to the funding council, requiring them to send in their three-year development plans for scrutiny.

ON THE WORRY LIST

Other issues colleges say are making life difficult for them include:

* The expense of continuing to support those sectors of industry that are in decline but still important.

* The scope left for growth at a time when student participation levels are already high.

* Financial incentives to stimulate expansion which act against the other priority of collaboration.

* The need for more staff development.

* Restructuring costs.

* The frustrations of inadequate labour market information.

* Pressures arising from having to do more outreach work.

* Uncertainties surrounding student support.

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