Colleges will have to shrink or even abandon their capital projects as part of a more rigorous assessment process, the new Learning and Skills Council chief has confirmed.
Geoff Russell, chief executive of the funding body, has told principals that independent consultants would score colleges' applications to determine who gets how much of the additional pound;300 million made available in the Budget for capital funding in 2009-11.
The consultants, Lambert Smith Hampton and PricewaterhouseCoopers, will operate a two-stage screening process. First Lambert Smith Hampton will identify those colleges ready to start building this summer; then it and PwC will help to assess which of these will receive the money they need to proceed and how much.
College projects will be measured against five qualitative criteria that have each been given a weighting to help the scoring process. They are: the impact on education and skills (20 per cent weighting); the economic, social and environmental impact (15 per cent); their projects' importance to wider regeneration (15 per cent); the condition of colleges' current buildings (20 per cent) and value for money of the project (30 per cent).
Mr Russell said: "We need a clear picture of where each college is now and where we might be able to shrink projects to meet the level of learning environment they need.
"No doubt some of these applications could evaporate, turn into refurbishments or be delayed for three years. The smaller each project can become, the more likely the number of projects we can fund will become higher."
In total, 144 projects costing an estimated pound;5.7 billion have been proposed by colleges as part of the Building Colleges for the Future programme. Of these, 79 projects worth pound;2.7 billion are waiting for detailed approval and funding from the LSC. The two-stage assessment process will be applied to these 79 projects in the first instance.
Following assessment, a list of priority projects will be compiled by the council's national capital committee for approval by its national council, meeting on June 3. Work on approved projects will begin soon after.
Those projects that fail to meet the criteria will be put forward for possible funding from 2012 onwards. These colleges will then go through a rigorous series of assessments of need, impact, value for money and readiness to proceed.
In a letter to colleges at the end of last month, Mr Russell promised help to those colleges that have incurred costs in developing projects but which may not win approval and funding to start the work this year. This help would follow an analysis of costs to see where contributions might be justified.
The letter also said that the process for applying for capital projects in the next spending review would be streamlined in order to keep costs down. All new or modified projects would require only an outline proposal initially.
A meeting of the Capital Reference Group, of college principals, government and LSC officials and PwC staff, met last week to discuss the process for applying the criteria for assessment. John Allen, principal of Lincoln College, asked how the weightings were arrived at and whether more weight should apply to the current condition of colleges' buildings. Principals also called for greater clarity on exactly how much money was still available beyond what has been spent to date. The group is due to meet again in June.