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One voice for us all

Ruth Gee argues for a broad-based coherence in further education's vision. Two years ago further education colleges formed the Association for Colleges because they saw the need for a national identity and a national policy-making organisation for the FE sector. It was not a matter simply of narrow self-interest. It reflected the fast-growing importance of FE to Britain's economic future and to the future welfare and job satisfaction of its young people.

Colleges saw clearly that a long-term vision could not be provided by colleges acting alone. Short-term problems and the dictates of everyday management are bound to dominate the agenda. And even if time could be found for long-term vision, how would it be expressed? How would colleges go about lobbying for the national policies needed to make the vision a reality? Nor could the job be done entirely by individual self-interest groups.

There has to be a single coherent voice which can go to government and industry, to politicians, civil servants and managing directors, and say: if you want FE to achieve , you must give it those things. There has to be one voice for FE.

That voice has to be firmly in the control of the colleges. That is why the AfC's working groups consist of principals and corporation chairs. A recent audit of AfC activity showed such groups working on a remarkably wide range of subjects: Europe; value for money; valued added; caseloading; research; learning credits; foundation GNVQs and partnership with industry.

But some subjects come up over and over again - and it is on these subjects that our effectiveness is most important. The need for colleges to be at the forefront of developments in technology and communications, the need for a coherent system of student support, the need to ensure that competition, both between colleges and schools and among colleges, does not damage the education we provide or waste resources; the need for a clear relationship with TECs and LECs; the development of staff and effective human resource management. These subjects matter to every FE college principal in the country, and they look to the AfC to lobby effectively on their behalf.

So we do that. We are helping to ensure that our colleges are in the fast lane of the information superhighway, and we have just announced that British Telecom has agreed to sponsor a national e-mail network. We have already set up the network pilot, together with the National Association for Information Technology in Further Education, to give principals and chairs of corporations access to e-mail, bulletin board and file transfer services, and Windows-based software.

The importance of communications technology in the colleges is reflected in the title of our conference next week: Communication and Learning Technology. BT sponsorship has helped to provide video conferencing facilities which will highlight the ability of students to learn at a distance.

The conference will hear, among others, from BT managing director for national communications, Bruce Bond; from the chief executive of the National Council for Educational Technology, Margaret Bell; and from the chair of the Further Education Funding Council's committee on learning and technology, Sir Gordon Higginson.

On student support, we have asked the Education Secretary to commission a study of the system, because it is failing both students and colleges which teach them.

Most grants for study at FE colleges are discretionary. In the last few years, in many local authorities, "discretionary" has become another word for "non-existent". This imposes an appalling dilemma on college managements.

But often the only alternative is to subsidise students from the college's own hardship funds. Some colleges have done this, paying out last year up to 3 or 4 per cent of their annual budget. Others have helped students to raise money from charity.

But we cannot go on like this. Colleges and charities have limited resources. They cannot, and should not, take on the task of financing the trained workforce which Britain will need for the 21st century. That is the responsibility of government. Perhaps the new Secretary of State, who is making her first major speech to the college sector at the conference, will take the opportunity to announce a study of the system.

Competition between colleges and schools as providers of further education is not in itself a bad thing. But if it means that schools keep information about FE colleges from their pupils for fear of losing customers; if it means that colleges have to spend a disproportionate amount of their budget on promotion; if it stifles co-operation between colleges and stifles school-college co-operation, then it becomes a bad thing. The AfC's job is to safeguard the interests of the colleges and to press the Government for systems which will ensure that competition does not become destructive.

Next week will also see the first serious assessment of higher education in FE colleges. We will publish our survey, which will give us a basis for thinking and planning. Next week will also see the establishment of a special group for governors to decide how they wish to use the Pounds 30,000 allocated to the AfC by BT for work with governors.

I have spoken recently at two graduation ceremonies, one in Scotland and one in England. Both of them highlighted the success of the colleges in meeting learner needs at a wide range of levels, preparing students for a wide range of employment. HNC, HND and degree students were all together in the same hall. So were full-time and part-time students, and it is increasingly difficult to differentiate between the two. Flexible, modular individual learning is increasingly the norm.

We in FE need to know exactly what our vision for the future will be because that vision will be crucial to future generations, and will also determine how far British industry gets the people and the skills it will need. The AfC manifesto for FE is being written.

Ruth Gee is chief executive of the Association for Colleges.

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