UNDER this Government we have seen a major shift in thinking from the competitively destructive post-incorporation world to one of co-operative expansion - of further education. However, the metaphor that comes to mind when I think about FE is a crumbling cliff, badly in need of shoring up.
My first FE priority for the new government has to be bolstering core services; the "bog-standard" elements usually neglected amid the fanfare of new initiatives. Many of the overworked, underpaid lecturers I speak to are suffering from "initiative fatigue". Hypothecated, project-specific funding earmarked for shiny new initiatives is fine, if it is the icing on the cake, not the filling. Next year the money available per student in FE is expected to decrease by 4 per cent, followed by another 1 per cent in 2003 - sobering news for all FE stakeholders and most especially our new government.
The second item on my wish list is lecturers' pay. We must have a return to national pay scales as a constant like our colleagues in schools and sixth-form colleges. A government-led drive to enforce the national scales would end half the morale problems in the sector and force an end to the days when colleges robbed the pay budget to fund core services.
FE is the only public service that can't guarantee a pay rise for its staff every year - to date fewer than three-quarters of colleges have paid last year's nationally agreed award. This is a national disgrace and one I will again put on the agenda when I am lucky enough to be invited to meet our next Minster for Education.
Next on the agenda is a government commitment to high quality services, delivered by people employed properly as opposed to a casualised, demoralised workforce. Proper, manatory employment procedures would help. Discrimination lurks in the crevices of casualisation; the vast majority of part-timers are female, paid by the hour, denied training and promotion. We must get these workers back onto fractional contracts and treat them as a valuable resource not a cost-cutting tool. Government backing for a strict limit on fixed-term contracts is a priority.
Next comes race equality - with just a handful of black college managers and members of ethnic minorities under-represented at all levels, FE risks accusations of race discrimination. The Race Relations (amendment) Act, 2000, will require colleges to eliminate race discrimination, promote equality of opportunity and good relations between people of different racial backgrounds. A strong government steer on the implementation of this legislation would be appreciated.
Government recognition that students from disadvantaged backgrounds need more support, and that e-learning has advantages but is not the whole solution, is another key demand. FE deals with some of the most vulnerable students and too often new technology is used as an excuse to cut staffing and leave students to fend for themselves.
We also need a change to the tuition fee policy. It may have been a brave decision, but it was wrong and has harmed social inclusion. Access should be by ability to study not ability to pay. In FE, NATFHE would like to see an expansion of this Government's pilot scheme for educational maintenance allowances.
Last, but certainly not least, is the question of paid educational leave. Without a government-led commitment to workplace learning there can never be significant progress in reducing the skills gap.
To be a friend of FE, the new government needs to listen; to lecturers, to students and to NATFHE. If they do that they can't go far wrong.
Paul Mackney is general secretary of the lecturers' union NATFHE