Close door on course-trading

18th July 1997 at 01:00
If a privatised utility sold on gas or electricity through a third party, hiking up the price to the public by 50 per cent, there would be an outcry. The regulator would impose a heavy fine, if not demand that the franchise be revoked. Yet the behaviour of colleges in trading students with their competitors has strong parallels.

The practice reported on page 25 today only serves to highlight the absurdities of the Further Education Funding Council's cash policies.

A fast-growing college with students clamouring for admission is offered, say, Pounds 10 for every unit of work produced by the unfathomable college funding formula. A neighbour which cannot reach its admission targets might get Pounds 15 or even Pounds 20 for doing exactly the same work.

There are many reasons for such differences, including incentives to boost recruitment in slow-growing areas, and the accidents of history inherited from the days when local education authorities ran colleges.

Whatever the reasons, it has not been difficult for some college managers to hit upon a solution to their recruitment problems. They could take over cheap-to-run courses - and students - from fast-growing colleges which are cutting their numbers because of budget restrictions. By doing so they can hit their targets, and possibly make a neat profit on the deal.

And in the brave new world of high technology and franchise deals, colleges hundreds of miles apart can trade in students.

Formal deals of this sort are strictly against the rules of the further education game, but there is nothing to stop one college passing courses to another via the back door - with the taxpayer footing the bill.

Just how widespread this practice is, nobody knows. It is not a new wheeze; it was reported in The TES two years ago when a handful of LEAs, schools, colleges, training and enterprise councils and private training companies admitted off-the-record to doing it.

The FEFC investigated, reported that the incidence was small, and said that in any case such loopholes would be plugged. The council is deeply embarrassed by the latest evidence that the practice is if anything worse than ever. But the question is, what action does David Melville, FEFC chief executive, intend to take? It makes a mockery of attempts to peg costs and, worse, leaves the sector open to ministerial claims that there is clearly room for more "efficiency" cuts.

The practice is also short-sighted. Since there is not going to be any cash in the coffers from Labour for the next two years, the money gained by a few imprudent traders will only have to be clawed back from other parts of the sector. It all adds nothing to the country's stock of trained and educated people. It generates no extra places. Indeed, the low average spender might be content with fewer, but more highly profitable, students.

Above all, it surely shows what a profound shift has taken place in the culture of the FE sector. This is as much the symptom of too many colleges seeing themselves as a business first and an education and training service second.

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