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Rethink on funding shake-up

COLLEGES in Scotland are not to face a major upheaval after funding chiefs decided not to go ahead with key proposals issued for consultation in June.

In a letter to colleges this week, the Scottish Further Education Funding Council said that the weightings given to college subjects which are intended to reflect their differences in cost would not now be changed.

The overall impact on most colleges would have been minor and the administrative effort required would be a disproportionate distraction, it explained. But the council did not completely rule out changes in the future.

The original proposals, drawn up in a report for the council by the Scottish Further Education Unit, envisaged new weightings that would reduce the cost differentials between subjects but would also have had a major impact on some. Funding for land-based courses, for example, would have fallen by 11 per cent while support would have risen by 10 per cent for the creative arts and design.

This could have had a potent-ially serious effect on the largely agricultural colleges - Barony, Oatridge and Elmwood. The proposed weightings were rejected by 73 per cent to 18 per cent during the consultation.

Although courses such as those in agriculture, construction and engineering are more strongly weighted than others to reflect their heavier costs, the consultative report argued that FE subjects now tend to draw on common resources, such as information and communications technology. This factor has led to less variation in costs among subjects.

In a statement this week, however, the funding council revealed it had decided "to retain the current relative prices for different subject areas, as the best way at present to support all colleges to focus on offering the right range of courses for their communities rather than making administrative changes with no benefit to the learner".

The council made clear it was rejecting simply any changes based on the specific findings of the report. It will now step up efforts to acquire better quality information "to support any further investigations into the need for changes to subject weightings", its circular to college principals states.

But Martin Fairbairn, deputy director of FE funding, stressed: "We will have to return to these issues - though not tomorrow."

The council's decision is none the less likely to be welcomed in the sector which had feared an "aggressive repricing" of subjects that would have involved a major destabilising redistribution of money between colleges at a time when many continue to claim they are being underfunded to carry out their day-to-day teaching.

One insider suggested there would be "a sigh of relief rather than a round of applause, which is as close as you are likely to get to a general welcome in FE these days".

The funding council has decided, however, to go ahead with other proposals to take account of changes in the way courses are delivered. Among these is the scrapping of standard tariffs for full-time courses which are now less uniform in length than they used to be. This would also encourage greater flexibility in the development of part-time courses.

A cap is also to be introduced on the maximum funding colleges can claim for any one student which, Mr Fairbairn says, is designed to ensure greater equity. The whole purpose of the changes that are being made was to move from "rigidity to flexibility".

The council is unable to say at present what effects these plans will have on colleges until it holds detailed discussions. Mr Fairbairn said it would hold fast to two key principles - any changes must be "manageable" and there must be no significant financial change in any one year.

The circular makes clear that none of the plans will be introduced until 2003-04 at the earliest.

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