Can-do attitude will keep FE from cuts crisis

19th March 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Alan Thomson

Fear of widespread college collapse has stalked further education's leadership for months, in fact almost as long as KPMG has been working on its report (page 1).

Indeed, if the report is kept in the shadows any longer, and the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) won't yet commit to its publication, it risks being rendered irrelevant by events. And perhaps, given the less than rosy picture it paints, this is the intention.

But is KPMG on the money with its hard-hitting report? It is tempting to conclude "yes" and "no".

Yes, in that the sector is facing a serious and prolonged - perhaps permanent - reduction in state funding which will have a major impact on its future operations.

It is interesting that the LSC and, to a surprising extent the Association of Colleges, appear almost in denial about the scale and potential impact of the challenges ahead. No one expects either organisation to talk down FE's chances, but they are reluctant even to discuss publicly the scale of cuts anticipated by KPMG and the risks to college viability.

Their circumspection is, they argue not without reason, understandable ahead of a general election, a budget and a spending review.

A lot could change, but can FE afford to sit around and wait for change to happen? No, and this is already evident in the attitudes and actions of colleges across the country.

Many principals have told FE Focus they are planning for cuts in state income of at least 20 per cent over the next three years. KPMG would also appear right about the impact on colleges. The sector is alive with talk of merger, shared services, federations, redundancies, course closures, selling off land and sites. The one thing FE is not short of is "can-do" attitude.

And this is why the report, at least the draft seen by this paper, is slightly wide of the mark. Its projection of widespread college failure ill-suits a system evolved to make the best of what it's got for the benefit of students. There is no reason to think cuts will bring catastrophe.

KPMG seems to grasp something of the sector's survival instinct when it says lower levels of funding will be, to a degree, a positive influence. How positive depends on who you are.

Staff facing redundancy or students denied a course may be unlikely to see things as positively as those "predatory" colleges mentioned in the report.

Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus; E: alan.thomson@tsleducation.com.

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