From Chablis to Irn Bru in FE crusade;Commentary;FE Focus

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
We went to the May Day wider access conference at Glasgow Caledonian University expecting to hear from the Education Minister about the pound;6 million of new money for higher education. We expected to hear of a budget increase for senate dinners, hosted by vice chancellors, of roast swan and chilled Chablis and for the extra cash to match the "rate for job" as set out by the High Pay Commission. Naturally there would be no mention of the mutton pie and Irn Bru sector. Did we ever get it wrong?

First, Brian Wilson - obviously departing from his prepared text - spoke with a missionary zeal, launching much more than an initiative - this was more like a crusade.

Second, the politics were sound. I have waited all of my professional life to hear an Education Minister set out a comprehensive adult learning policy which includes all universities, stresses equality of access and attacks poverty as a matter of principle. I am, now, even willing to accept the new tuition and maintenance arrangements as logical in these terms.

Third, the concrete actions - hopefully just a start - were spot on. Funding for Newbattle Abbey, pound;6 million over three years for 2,000 additional part-time degree students, higher education fee waivers for 3,000 unemployed or low-income recruits, an extra pound;1 million in each of the next five years to promote wider access, and a doubling of access fund support for struggling students.

Fourth, the crucial role identified for further education. The Minister reminded a conference populated mostly by university professionals that almost half of HE in Scotland is undertaken in colleges and that most of the learning work done with the workless class and in disadvantaged areas with poor people is delivered by FE.

New Labour's plans for 52,000 more places in Scottish universities by 2002 will require funding for about 40,000 FE students who will feed through from colleges to universities. It is important for HE to realise that the FE sector is already in touch with exactly the kind of students they need if the Minister's vision is to be realised.

The conference was also about feeding back views to the Scottish Office. So, if wider access is part of the attack on poverty, it is vital that colleges and universities are part of the proposed social inclusion networks announced two weeks ago by Donald Dewar, the Secretary of State.

Funding should drive partnerships. This will require all Government departments to recognise the statutory duty which FE colleges have to provide lifelong learning and ensure that the forthcoming White Paper acknowledges FE's role in attacking exclusion. The challenge of social exclusion in the funding of FE and HE should be explicitly recognised. This would avoid unnecessary duplication and provide the public purse with value for money.

In terms of the wider access announcements, the Scottish HE Funding Council should make the Scottish credit transfer arrangements comprehensive by including FE. The existing regional partnerships on wider access should be enhanced to focus on FEHE part-time links.

Finally, extensive staff development (or is it a reverse lobotomy programme?) should be undertaken by university admissions tutors. It is not a matter of academic standards that Scotland "boasts" a six-year honours degree: it is more a matter of elitism and is one serious cause of student poverty. It is no surprise that New Labour sees FE as central to its welfare reform programme, which means redefining academic horizons.

Brian Wilson has got the message. If the Scottish HE Funding Council accepts this political fact, FE will be happy to toast John Sizer, the council's chief executive, with the usual glass of Irn Bru.

Long live Mutton Pies!

Graeme Hyslop is deputy principal at Langside College, Glasgow and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity. His e-mail address is: aghyslop@langside.ac.uk

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