Be careful what you wish for in FE funding

28th May 2010 at 01:00
Comment: Alan Thomson

All things considered it has been a good week for further education.

First the 16-19 education budget was spared the axe, which is good news for colleges and training providers who receive pound;4 billion each year from the Department for Education (DfE).

And second, we learned that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is exploring options for simplifying FE funding and allowing providers greater freedoms to run their own affairs (page 1).

These commitments are welcome but now the FE sector must think hard about what it wishes for. The BIS statement makes clear that the starting - and perhaps finishing - point for consultation is a Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) that would control a "single, unified budget for colleges and training organisations".

A rebooted FEFC is an attractive option. It is familiar and it would be a one-stop-shop for FE funding. It promises to be cheap and to offer considerable freedom to providers.

But what would it mean for FE in reality?

Well, for a start it would mean that Education Secretary Michael Gove would have to write a cheque for pound;4 billion, taken from his 16-19 budget, and send it to the FEFC under BIS. If this happened, would FE's 16-19 budget be protected as well as it has been so far under Mr Gove?

What would shifting FE's 16-19 budget from the DfE into an FEFC mean for college hopes of parity of funding with schools? And what would an FE funding silo do for the sector's plans to deliver more full-time education from age 14?

So, what of the Liberal Democrats' preferred option of a Council for Adult Skills and Higher Education (CASHE)?

Apart from the acronym, which is a headline writer's dream as cuts loom, a CASHE would put the Skills Funding Agency's pound;4 billion budget together with the Higher Education Funding Council for England's (Hefce) pound;7 billion budget.

Hefce is an efficient funding body and also very light-touch. Applying this culture to FE funding would appeal to the sector.

A CASHE would also give FE a platform for its HE ambitions, as evinced this week by the Association of Colleges and the 157 Group (page 1), while leaving FE's 16-19 funding where, arguably, it would be better served.

An FEFC would be welcome, but CASHE would mean so much more.

Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus?

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