Lecturing jobs are being cut as spending is switched to computers, college principals have admitted in their response to a TESsurvey on information technology in further education. "Savings in salaries are small as yet, but they are savings none the less," said one. Another commented: "We have saved Pounds 26,000 on salaries this year by promoting independent learning."
As pupils take control of their own learning through computer-assisted and independent study, there is expected to be a shift in the balance from lecturing staff to support staff who will be responsible for guiding students through courses.
But with the pressures on colleges to find efficiency savings, lecturers who lose jobs are not necessarily replaced by support staff. The principal of one London college said: "We have been cutting teaching hours in the expectation that students will use computers."
Principals and information technology co-ordinators at one in 10 FE and sixth-form colleges in England, Scotland and Wales were contacted in The TES questionnaire survey. It was carried out as a special focus on communication, learning and technology, the theme of the Association for Colleges' annual conference in Glasgow, sponsored by The TES, The Times Higher Education Supplement and British Telecom.
All managers interviewed said they intended to plough cash back into staff recruitment but many expected a dip in staff ratios with the short-term need to invest in computers.
Several suggested, however, that if Government spending is frozen or cut after three years of FE expansion then reduced staffing will become a permanent feature in the medium term.
Every college is looking to IT as an essential tool to safeguard standards and promote independent learning by students while reducing the amount of direct teaching time by staff. One key issue, identified by 80 per cent of those who responded, was the changing nature or style of teaching within the FE sector with many colleges looking to employ greater numbers of support staff in the future.
Howard Jones, principal of Thomas Danby College of Further Education in Leeds, said it planned to reduce direct teaching time of lecturers by 40 per cent next year. He said: "We have been driven to increase our output and maintain quality with diminishing resources. We have had to look at the process of learning and maintain quality while making it cheaper. The most expensive element is staff time.
"Staffing levels will not change overall, but there will be a change in character. Colleges will not need so many specialists but will need well- qualified, learning-support staff and good quality back-up learning systems for student workshop facilities."
Forty-seven per cent predicted that more teaching time would be created as IT spread across the curriculum enabling class sizes to increase. The same number planned to increase their pupil-teacher ratio in a bid to improve funding.
Alan Armsby, director of learning resources at Newcastle College, said it planned to use IT in a "cost-effective manner" to cut the amount of class contact hours to 15 out of 30. He said: "IT means the college can differentiate between contact and non-contact time. It means that staff will teach more courses with their free time."
Mr Armsby said the college, which has between 6,500 and 7,000 full-time equivalent students, planned to take on additional teaching staff and expand, adding: "We must ensure that outside class teaching time our pupils are supported by well qualified staff."
Eight out of 10 managers responding to the survey believed colleges would move to increase levels of independent learning by students in resource and drop-in centres. One-fifth believed greater emphasis would be placed upon distance learning as colleges invested in networks that link them to the community.
However, Peter Taylor, vice-principal of Hartlepool sixth form college, which has more than 500 full-time equivalent students, believed the move to independent and distance learning created tension because of its inherent staffing implications. "Our concern is that the total experience we offer is very much bound up with pastoral care," he said. "While we want to take advantage of new technology we do not want to sacrifice the total environment which we offer."