A call for clarity on FE's lost cash

30th January 2009 at 00:00

Was there anything wrong in principle with the Government shifting money from further to higher education to cover a shortfall in student support (page 1)?

After all, there was more than Pounds 280 million just sitting unspent in the FE budget due largely to a lack of take-up of Train to Gain among employers. At the same time, higher education needed the money because of a miscalculation on student support.

Setting aside for a moment any atavistic FE antagonism towards privileged universities and their students, this is surely a case of effective budget management. Governments do it all the time. College principals do it all the time.

The jury may need more time to reach a verdict on the rights and wrongs. But - and it is an important but - having transferred the cash, did we not at least expect the Government to be open and transparent about what it had done? The FE sector did, certainly. Instead, in the face of government obfuscation, it felt it had been robbed.

"We keep our budgets under review against performance of our programmes," is as clear as the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills got last year.

Of course, the department could not be much more open without admitting that its flagship Train to Gain scheme, as originally conceived, was a bit of a white elephant. It was a supply-driven initiative for a demand-led employers' market.

Many in FE felt additionally aggrieved because the adult education budget for non-accredited courses had been raided to pay for the scheme.

Since then, the Government has been forced to retool Train to Gain for the recession. This is welcome and should give colleges the flexibility to respond to the needs of employers and employees.

But it still leaves confusion around the money. The innovation, universities, science and skills select committee reports that, of the Pounds 116m taken from FE and given to HE, Pounds 67m has since been "reallocated" to the former. Exactly where this money has gone is unclear. The remaining Pounds 49m is lost to FE as it was a permanent transfer of money in 2007-08.

Then there is the lack of clarity over the provenance of the Pounds 350m promised by the Government last October to help smaller businesses with training and skills. And where did the Government find the Pounds 83m for retraining those unemployed for six months or more?

A lot is up in the air in the current financial storm, but the sooner the dust settles the better.

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