Can the Tories steer FE out of choppy waters?

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
In the library of things famous people never actually said, "Crisis? What crisis?" has an enduring appeal

That former prime minister Jim Callaghan did not say it is neither here nor there, since the phrase is wickedly apt when applied to some facing obvious disaster.

For instance, one might imagine the phrase being used at the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) as the college-building programme collapsed. One might even imagine it being reprised as the Train to Gain scheme began to spiral out of control.

On the strength of this week's cover story, it might also apply to the financial meltdown facing many colleges.

Is it not enough that colleges are in such poor shape because of the capital catastrophe, leaving them millions of pounds poorer, and the funding freeze on Train to Gain, which jeopardises providers' training business on a grand scale?

We know already that some colleges are technically insolvent, with more heading that way. Cost cutting and redundancies are rife, as are the strikes against them.

Now the LSC wants to halt funding for additional students, unless colleges exceed their targets by 10 per cent or more. And even if they do overshoot their targets, additional funds will be limited. This can only exacerbate the financial crisis facing the sector.

Bashing the LSC is fast becoming a national sport in FE circles. This is perhaps unfair on the current LSC leadership, who are fighting so many fires.

The deeper problem concerns the way we plan, manage and fund further education. And here, at least, the Conservatives seem to have identified a key issue when they speak of FE's over-dependence, financially and strategically, on the LSC.

Colleges are autonomous institutions, but they are subject to an oppressive and, looking at recent events, damaging degree of central control.

Shifting control from the LSC to local authorities, regional development agencies and a Skills Funding Agency from next year may change little beyond the names of FE's masters.

Further education is the most dynamic part of our education system - full of leaders with vision and energy, backed by effective management and founded upon a professional and dedicated workforce.

And it may be that the Conservatives are now speaking their language.

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