A pioneering college has upset further education leaders by offering "premier" scholarships worth Pounds 1,200 to high-flying students in an attempt to boost its academic reputation.
Teesside Tertiary College is also offering Pounds 900 "merit" scholarships to 16-year-olds with potential whose headteachers recommend them, and "a fast track" for bright pupils who want to complete their A-levels in a year.
Peter Henry, Teesside's deputy chief executive, said this week: "We are encouraged to compete and it's the name of the game. We want to give the best possible opportunities to anyone who comes to us."
The college, formed a month ago after a merger between Longlands College and Marton Sixth Form College in Middlesbrough, has about a dozen people interested in its Pounds 1,200 "premier" scholarships and more than 20 considering its Pounds 900 "merit" scholarships, both over two years.
The number of bursaries is "unlimited", according to Paul Graham, Teesside's director of academic planning, but the college does not expect many students to apply for the premier scholarship because they need at least eight grade As at GCSE to qualify.
The scholarships will be financed by the college's commercial activities. Teesside is a consultant to the plastics industry and claims to be a leading world authority on machine safety directives. The business has a Pounds 1 million turnover and a "substantial" profit, which the college was not willing to specify.
But colleges, lecturers and school heads reacted with hostility to the Teesside bursaries. Peter Downes, who hands over the Secondary Heads Association presidency to John Dunford today, said: "I am extremely anxious about the implications of this which does seem to be a misuse of money and tilting the playing field in favour of colleges."
He said Pounds 1,200 in Cambridgeshire, where he runs Hinchingbrooke School, Huntingdon, was 50 per cent of the money available to teach a student for a year.
John Akker, general secretary of NATFHE, the lecturers' union, said: "Many in further education will see this offer for what it is - as being a bribe for exceptionally able candidates to go to college in the hope that the institution will derive status.
"It appears that the inflated values of the premier division of the football league now have the potential to apply to FE, when colleges will vie for the best students.
"Colleges should instead use such money from industry for the benefit of all students, not just those with high entrance qualifications."
And Ruth Gee, chief executive of the Association for Colleges, said: "We would decry any attempt to poach students by using financial inducements. If colleges are in this position, it is a reflection of the breakdown of the funding system for students, which is an issue which must be addressed by government."
But Teesside college defended the scheme, insisting it was no different from the long-established university practice of offering scholarships to able students.
A spokeswoman for the Further Education Funding Council said the college was doing nothing unlawful. Even if it were using public funds to provide scholarships, the scheme would still be allowed, she said.