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Spend now so colleges can build for future

An obvious change in further education over the past decade has been the improvement in the quality of college buildings. Victorian mausoleums and 1960s eyesores have been replaced by elegant glass and steel structures that could easily be mistaken for university schools of architecture.

These buildings are modern, fit-for-purpose and advertise high quality education in a way that grungy old techs never could, even if they actually did deliver the goods educationally.

The trouble is that far too few colleges currently enjoy the benefits of buildings designed for 21st-century learning. It cannot be easy trying to sell, let alone deliver, a cutting-edge learning experience when your HQ looks and functions like the back end of a bus depot.

The Government's Pounds 2.3 billion to build colleges fit for future learning (page 1) is, therefore, a thoroughly welcome initiative. In fact it has been welcomed so enthusiastically in the sector that bids for the fund topped Pounds 2.9 billion in only one year.

Of course, the Learning and Skills Council could have anticipated that demand for the money would rapidly exceed the available pot. But normally, colleges and government would be able to put their hands in their pockets and cover the shortfall through loans and other means.

Unfortunately, the economic downturn means that fewer colleges can rely on ready access to bank loans or buyers to snap up surplus sites. Meanwhile, the Government is spending almost every penny it has on propping up the banking industry.

But there is Pounds 10 billion that the prime minister has "borrowed" from future planned spending to keep the construction industry going through the downturn - and colleges are right to ask for a share of it. Afterall, it is the big civil construction works such as Building Schools for the Future and Building Colleges for the Future that will keep the pilot light on in construction over the coming months.

But more than that, the Government has asked colleges to play a major role in supporting the economy through the looming recession by expanding their work on employee skills and retraining for the unemployed. Money has been found for such courses, but not necessarily for the buildings to teach them in.

Add to this the likely expansion of FE numbers when diplomas come on stream this year and the case for continued investment in colleges is strong.

As yet there is no doubt that Pounds 2.3 billion will be disbursed for college buildings. The key questions are when and, inevitably, who will miss out.

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