Cash fight to keep new blood flowing

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
Jack McConnell, Education Minister, has come as close as he could to demanding publicly that the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council drop controversial plans which would seriously disadvantage teacher education courses.

Pressure is also likely to come from MSPs as the Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee heard evidence on Wednesday of the damage that would result from proposals that could cut support for teacher education by pound;2 million.

This represents an average reduction of 6 per cent at a time when the Scottish Executive is looking for another 4,000 teachers to implement the post-McCrone settlement. Courses in continuous professional development, another key ingredient in the settlement, would be hit even harder and face a loss of 15 per cent in state income if the funding council goes ahead.

Privately Mr McConnell was said to be furious but could not openly criticise an arm's length quango, particularly since the proposals have not been finalised and are the subject of a consultation that lasts until the end of the month.

Mr McConnell was drawn into the row at last week's General Teaching Council for Scotland conference (page five). The issue was raised by Gordon Kirk, the GTC's vice-convener and a strong critic of the plans, who drew the "extraordinary" contrast between a supportive Education Minister and "another part of the policy vineyard, the Shefc, which is plotting to remove pound;2 million from teacher education".

Mr McConnell said simply: "I am confident that the funding arrangements over the next few years will cover what we need to achieve in teacher education." That was widely interpreted as a clear steer to the funding council.

At the parliamentary hearing this week, Universities Scotland and the Educational Institute of Scotland both condemned the funding plans in evidence to the lifelong learning committee. Professor Andrew Miller, principal of Stirling University, said the proposals, which are an attempt to rationalise the funding of all higher education coures, were particularly bad news for teacher education. The council wants to reduce its funded subject groups from 22 to six, but distribute teacher education courses among three different groups.

This would mean funding the secondary BEd courses and postgraduate training programmes by pound;6,259 per student, in-service and the primary BEd programmes at the rate of pound;5,523 per student and combined education degrees at pound;4,713.

"This seems to be to be totally wrong when all these courses require students to demonstrate the same competences," Professor Miller said.

He also criticised the proposal to put modern languages in the lowest category of group 6, which attracts funding of pound;3,682 per student, just at the point when Mr McConnell had launched the European Year of Languages in Scotland and when ministers are flagging up the importance of more pupils taking foreign languages.

The EIS also criticised the "potentially very damaging" impact on teacher education which flew in the face of Government plans to increase intakes significantly. It told the committee there was "no justification for including initial teacher education in the subject pricing group proposed.

"No account appears to have been taken of the fact that initial teacher education is already subject to stringent and costly national guidelines and is quality assured through systems additional to and more costly than those applied in other subject areas."

The funding council points out that grant changes would not be introduced until August next year, by which time overall resources for higher education will have risen by around 9 per cent. The council also promises transitional arrangements.

But Professor Douglas Weir, dean of education at Strathclyde University, fears that universities will be unable to switch funds from other courses to bail out teacher education, or may have to switch students into more generously funded and shorter postgraduate programmes leaving the four-year undergraduate primary BEd particularly weakened.

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