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Parties woo further education voters

As unions demand college pay catches up with schools. Ngaio Crequer and Steve Hook report.

COLLEGE students have been less satisfied with the education they have received under four years of Labour rule than their counterparts in school sixth forms, according to a TES poll of first-time voters.

Of students still at school, 20 per cent said they had been very satisfied, and 46 per cent were fairly satisfied. But in the FE sector, those very satisfied amounted to 13 per cent, with 44 per cent fairly satisfied.

But this does not necessarily mean that a college education was less impressive. The TES asked 200 first-time voters their views on the education they had received over the last four years. In both sectors only 3 per cent of the students said they were very dissatisfied.

More than 80 per cent of all students intended to go on to higher education, a figure which will give Labour a boost. But nearly all of that number were against Labour's policy on tuition fees.

Labour this week said in its manifesto that FE colleges "had a critical role to play in the future." The manifesto is a re-run of already announced proposals: helping the seven million adults who lack basic numeracy and literacy skills; half of all colleges to become centres of vocational excellence; the extension of individual learning accounts; a statutory framework for industrial training.

The Conservatives said they were presenting "the most ambitious programme for a generation." But there was no mention of FE, skills or lifelong learning. University students would have longer to repay student loans. Family scholarships would be available for parents who had taken time out from their carers to care for their children, to undertake vocational or educational training.

The Lib Dems said that for too long FE had been at the bottom of the pile and should become a priority. Every adult would be entitled to publicly funded tuition up to level 2 (equivalent of 5 GCSEs at grades A-C) The Learning and Skills Council would be merged with the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Every 16 to 24-year-old would be entitled to study leave with pay.

The new government could face a powerful united lobby representing unions and employers to press for more spending on FE.

Plans to hire independent consultants to lobby ministers for a better deal were discussed by employers and union representatives at the joint pay negotiating body this week. The pay talks themselves have again been stalled because the offer by the Association of Colleges of a 3 per cent increase for all FE staff was rejected by unions, including lecturers' union NATFHE and the Association for College Management.

Peter Pendle, new general secretary of the ACM, is confident some progress has been made. "The AOC described the 3 per cent as an 'opening offer' and now they will reconsider their position before coming back with a new one."

Paul Mackney, NATFHE general secretary, said: "We are still falling further behind the position of school teachers' pay with this offer, which is why we agreed to it being unanimously rejected.

"But we are in favour of some sort of lobbying approach to put the case to government. We need to put forward a proper argument putting the case for catching up on pay, and that case needs to be properly costed."


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