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Old lags must find ways to break the funding shackles

The Accrington Observer reported recently that my college was required to cut its budget as a result of an allocation by the Further Education Funding Council which had been reduced by Pounds 8 million.

They meant "to" rather than "by", but the newspaper has never been one to let a preposition get in the way of a good story. The curious thing is that it did not turn out to be a very good story at all, judging by the apathetic silence it provoked. Either people must think that colleges are so extraordinarily well-resourced that the loss of Pounds 8 million is unremarkable, or they are so numbed by the never-ending round of cuts that they no longer feel any pain.

The announcement of the funding allocations for 1997-8 has been noted with similarly low-key resignation all over the country. There have been a few shrill denunciations from or on behalf of colleges which went out on a franchising limb this year, but on the whole it has been eerily quiet.

A chance meeting with a large group of college principals provided an opportunity to check out their own reactions. It is always difficult to say how a representative group of principals might be defined, but since we were all in converted offices in Stirling jail at the time, it was probably as typical a group as you could find.

The absence of anger was striking. Have we lost the energy to rage? Here we are, four years into a process of savage cutting of the costs of our service, with efficiency up by an average of about 25 per cent, standards maintained, and public suspicion as strong as ever, and yet we cannot raise a decent head of steam about another example of good performance being rewarded with more punishment.

We should be ashamed of ourselves. Perhaps we are and that is why we are so sheepish in our protests, but if we give the impression that we masochistically relish our cruel treatment and take pride in our endurance of it, we are merely inviting a kind government to continue to give us the pleasure. Certainly some of my fellow jailbirds were looking at the instruments of correction with unnecessary interest.

A common theme among old lags was that things could have been worse, that a cut of another 7 per cent was better than, say, 10 per cent. True, but hardly a reason for a party. If we take that line we have fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the managerial book and one which we no doubt have all used from time to time in our colleges. Talk of a coming storm for long enough and vividly enough and when all you experience is a gale, people will swear blind that it's a flat calm. We do know in fairly precise terms what is coming: a standard rate of funding in three years' time which for the great majority of colleges means a further thumping reduction in our allocation.

In the case of this college it is roughly another 10 per cent, without making any allowance for inflation. I do not believe that such a cut can be justified by our funders or sustained by the college in its present configuration. Nor do I think, incidentally, that any of the businesses with which we have regular dealings could manage that sort of reduction on top of cuts already handed down to us.

So, something has to give. Either colleges have to break their own moulds, rethink the paradigms which govern their structures and their organisational assumptions and deliver a lot more for a great deal less, or they must shrug off their dependency on income from the Further Education Funding Council and find new sources of revenue to make up for what has been taken away. Both are possible, and no doubt one of the reasons why the jugged principals were so tight-lipped was that they were thinking of how best to break out of our current constraints.

Possible is not the same as easy, and paradigm-shifting in particular is hard labour. It is also essentially a private activity, one to be carried out by colleges in their own way and in their own circumstances. Lateral thinking produces quick ideas, but their implementation takes a little longer, so there will be no fast fixes.

Finding money which does not come from the FEFC means one or both of two things: project-funding from, for example, Europe, and provision of profitable activities for those who can afford to pay, notably business and commerce. European money, always elusive, is about to flow south and east as new members join the European Union, hands ready cupped to receive money to which the formula for assessing need will entitle them. Sensible colleges are already scaling down their expectations, not cranking them up.

Which leaves income-generating short courses and other, related activities. The trouble is that not only do such things need lots of planning and long lead-in times, but we are also all likely to be fishing in the same pond. Now that the concept of catchment areas and natural constituencies has been broken down by predatory trading, generous franchise deals and electronic communication, there are no companies which any college can regard as exclusively their own.

What is more, those same franchise deals have accustomed companies to think that, far from charging them for our services, we will put money into their pockets. There are examples of colleges which, spotting the collapse of government funding, have driven up the proportion of their local budget represented by trading profit to more than 50 per cent by going out and selling hard, by offering courses to the night-shift between midnight and dawn, and by persuading staff that this was the only way if the college was to last.

The bad news is that this has been done in Australia. Perhaps they will remind us of how to be entrepreneurial, if we in turn will remind them how to play cricket.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College TES june 20 1997 pauline neild

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