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Plum roles for Ulster colleges;FE Focus

Northern Ireland's further education colleges were told this week to expect a new role as leading providers of education and training for employment.

The announcement came on the eve of incorporation as the FE colleges finally became self-governing - five years after their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales. If the changes go ahead, colleges will take over much of the work now done on the mainland by training and enterprise councils.

Northern Ireland Minister, Tony Worthington, has told the Training and Employment Agency to review the future of the 10 Government training centres (GTCs), which have a budget of around pound;310 million, excluding staff salaries.

One option is to improve the performance of the centres by handing them over to the FE sector. Another is to turn them into separate companies, such as the Springvale Training Centre in West Belfast. A compromise would be to give colleges majority share-holdings in the new companies.

GTCs have always been more generously funded than FE colleges; their money comes direct from the agency which, unlike training and enterprise councils in Britain, is a Government body under the Department of Economic Development.

They would be an attractive plum. "The facilities in GTCs are absolutely first-class and they have the very latest equipment," one FE principal said.

Jamie Millar, acting secretary of the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges - launched last week in the run-up to incorporation on Wednesday - welcomed the review.

"It would hopefully cut out wasteful duplication, especially in expensive areas like construction, engineering or electrical installation. It would also promote greater co-operation," he said.

One option that seems unlikely is retaining the status quo, because of the high costs of the GTCs and their failure to meet targets. Expenditure is not directly comparable between the centres and FE Jobskills programmes, but the former are believed to be at least pound;3,500 per trainee higher.

Last year the centres aimed to train 2,000 people but had only 1,692 on their books.

The Training and Employment Agency had a target of ensuring that half of those students who did not achieve a full NVQ level 2 would gain at least one unit, but only 28 per cent did so. It also missed targets for the numbers moving into employment and for remaining in training until NVQ level 3.

Finally, it fell far short of the 50 per cent target for achieving NVQ level 3; only 11 per cent had reached that point within the two-year period reviewed.

A spokesperson for the agency confirmed that the review was being carried out but added that no decision was expected for a couple of months.

If the GTCs are removed from the agency, there will be difficult negotiations with the civil service union that represents the staff. They have a longer working year and lower pay than FE lecturers, so a transfer could be attractive. The catch is that few of them are believed to hold the qualifications needed to teach in one of the 17 colleges.

One person in FE noted the irony if the minister should choose the option of creating separate companies. The GTCs would be privatised after successive Conservative ministers opted to keep them under state control.

Paul McGill

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