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New minister faces demand for Pounds 39m

A letter of congratulations from colleges landed on the desk of the new Education and Employment Secretary this morning - with a demand for Pounds 39 million.

Roger Ward, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, insisted: "This is the cash we need to bail us out of the immediate crisis caused by previous government cuts. Without it, colleges have no hope of hitting targets."

And with about a dozen industrial disputes running in colleges, the general secretary of the lecturers' union, NATFHE John Akker, warned: "Any proposal to pour more money into colleges would involve a time lag - a delay that could prove disastrous for some colleges."

"We want a new deal for further and higher education. It will require emergency action to be taken in respect of FE."

The AOC letter spells out demands for action on "day one, month one and year one" to prevent the door being slammed in the faces of up to 258,000 full-time and part-time students this autumn.

The day one demand is for the cash needed to prevent the immediate closure of courses resulting from the Pounds 115m cut to expansion funds in February by the then Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard.

Demands for "month one" include guarantees on welfare reforms to encourage the unemployed back to college, grants for students post-16 and a clear definition of the role colleges will play in hitting the nation's training targets.

By the end of "year one", colleges want a clear statement on the strategic role they will play in providing vocational education and training, and the cash that will go with it.

Mr Ward said the obsession with issues relating to the incorporation of colleges since 1993 "has overshadowed the fact that there is a lack of clarity of focus in government thinking".

The lecturers' union NATFHE has made strident demands for an extra Pounds 1.9 billion to be ploughed into colleges to reverse the cuts of recent years.

But the detail of the union's immediate request shows remarkable unity between managers and staff in colleges.

Union leaders have joined managers in a call for a Dearing-style review of further education to supplement the review of staffing already promised by Labour.

Such a review is the focus for union hopes for new national bargaining arrangements and greater freedom and professional status for lecturing staff.

And unions are demanding a freeze on college budgets in real terms until the review is complete, effectively the reversal of cuts demanded by the AOC.

The demand for a review will be increasingly urgent given the heightened pressure for a thorough re-think of funding for 16-19 education.

Colleges are angered by what they see as the favoured status accorded to school sixth forms, and are looking for a level playing field (see page 29).

The resolve of both the management and lecturers to get tough was reinforced by the release of official figures showing that the drive to raise educational standards among Britain's workers has again fallen far short of official targets.

Fewer than one in four people has NVQ level 2 qualifications, the equivalent of four GCSEs, according to the latest Labour Force Survey carried out by the Department for Education and Employment.

The percentage remains unchanged since the last count in 1995.

And the number with NVQ level 3 qualifications, equivalent to two A-levels, has gone up by only 0.9 per cent in a year.

The figures mean the chances of meeting the targets for 2000, aimed at increasing Britain's competitiveness, are increasingly remote.

The targets are that 60 per cent of the workforce will have level 3 qualifications by the year 2000, and 30 per cent will reach level 4.

A report from the independent Unemployment Unit also suggests that welfare reforms and the Jobseekers' Allowance have hampered efforts of the unemployed to improve their skills and qualifications.

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