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Predatory poaching

The moderately good news for further education in the Budget will bring only faint cheer to the colleges. Every positive announcement needs its qualification or balance.

What you gain on the modern apprenticeship swings you may lose on the Training for Work roundabout. The sector can, just, be seen to be hanging on to favoured status in the public spending plans, but that does not necessarily make expansion easy.

The Government is still pinning most of its hopes for regeneration of the national skills-base on the colleges; they must provide the engine for delivery of the National Targets for Education and Training; they are the specialists in the vocational qualifications on which the targets depend; and they provide an essential alternative to sixth forms if the staying-on rate is to carry on upwards. Much political capital has also been invested in their independence.

So financial investment followed. It was to be for three years and the colleges were set their own targets for expansion. Student numbers duly went up as the colleges cut free from local authority reins and competed, but not enough. With one year left to run on the three-year deal, and target numbers still elusive, they have been given a fourth year of favoured funding before a cold climate of consolidation.

But any extra money is spread thin and the strings are tight. There are to be "efficiency gains", a strong steer towards performance-related pay for higher ranks, and an even stronger push towards flexible contracts for all. Meanwhile, in spite of last week's positive annual report from the Further Education Funding Council's inspectorate, the rough winds of competition are blowing some colleges into trouble.

So the annual meeting in Glasgow last week of the Association for Colleges received both congratulations on chief inspector Terry Melia's report, and a stern homily from FEFC chief Sir William Stubbs on the evils of predatory trading. Now there is news that some colleges may be fatally squeezed between budget constraints and poaching. Student numbers must be increased, not just moved around from one place to another. Since one of the key groups where colleges are failing to recruit up to target includes the sort of adult returner who may need courses outside traditional academic hours, it becomes clear that flexible contracts for lecturers can be a matter of economic survival rather than just a cost-cutting employers' shibboleth.

The current messy impasse over contracts has got to be resolved quickly for the sake of further education and its students (both present and potential) whether or not the Government threatens to withhold funding. The NATFHE membership needs to accept that if the on-off negotiations are ever to achieve success, and the colleges need to speak with a united voice. It would be a useful start if the Colleges' Employers Forum concentrated on the industrial relations issue, which is its main remit, and became less assertive about diversification, and the Association for Colleges by contrast more assertive about policy development.

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