For the hardest hit, it has meant a 40 per cent "efficiency gain." Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) figures this week suggest 59 colleges are technically insolvent. There is little left to cut as they enter a new three-year cycle set to prove even more austere. Tensions are rising.
But the answer is not to shoot the messenger, as many college leaders seem intent on doing. Some berated the FEFC at its annual meeting last week for not lobbying harder or for keeping it behind the scenes. Its chairman, Sir Robert Gunn, made two points they should not have needed telling. They should look to the Association of Colleges, whose job it was to lobby. Locally, colleges should use business connections to press politicians.
If they were out to test the mettle of David Melville, who took the reins of FEFC chief executive from Sir William Stubbs this autumn, the exercise was pointless. Submissions for the Budget were sealed long before his arrival. But he pledged an "agenda for collaboration" rather than a "hit-list of mergers". Colleges should work together on what they provide for students and cut costs by sharing resources. In what appeared to be a deliberate linguistic move, he referred constantly to the "college sector".
By this week and the inaugural AOC conference "collaboration" was the buzzword. As one principal said: "There is a feeling of greater unity, and I don't think it is just in misery." Unfortunately, that stopped short of co-operation with Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs) and Sir Robert's call to exploit business links. An alarming number of chairs and chief executives warned that the new found unity would not extend outside the college sector.
This is dangerously shortsighted. Colleges need the TECs. They are the brokers for industry training, they control Youth Training and Training for Work. Whatever colleges win in the Budget, TECs will lose from cuts in YT. It is set to become the sacrificial lamb for a pre-election feast in more voter-friendly parts of education and health (FE Focus, page 23).
Before colleges pull up the drawbridge, they should look to the consequences as cash-strapped TECs drive down contract prices for the college elements of YT and other schemes. It will be no use the colleges crying foul. The TEC national council has also taken a critical view on league tables, funding inequities and a host of issues close to the heart of FE.
Colleges are a potentially powerful sector which could be more so with TECs as allies. But such great pre-election debates never properly emerged at the first AOC conference. Where were the debates on student funding, on relations with higher education and the wider agenda? Frustrated, many have called for a radically new style of policy conference along the US community college lines.
That's fine for the future. But there are election pledges to secure from the political parties. The colleges need to speak with a united voice through their new association if they are to secure appropriate funding and prestige, and to remember (even if the Government doesn't) that gains at the expense of their natural allies, the TECs, will be self-defeating.