COLLEGES have thrown their weight behind the proposals set out in the Lane committee's report on student support - but say it still fails to tackle major discrepancies in funding, writes Harvey McGavin.
As the deadline for consultation on the committee's document passed last week, the Department for Education and Employment had received more than 350 submissions from colleges, education authorities, national bodies, parents and other interested parties.
The working group, headed by Graham Lane, chair of the education committee of the Local Government Association, has called for a national minimum entitlement to further education students of Pounds 300 per annum to iron out anomalies in discretionary awards. It also seeks payments for transport, childcare, fees and other expenses funded with cash redirected from child benefits. Mature students and those on low incomes would also be eligible for assistance. The plans will be tested in parts of the country with low participation rates from next autumn.
The chances of its wide-ranging reforms to remove "financial barriers" becoming permanent depend on the Government's finances matching the committee's fine words. But opinion in the sector is largely in favour of the plans, according to an Association of Colleges survey of more than 100 FE institutions.
Transport was named as the top priority by one in six respondents, followed by the national minimum entitlement (one in 10). Around nine out of 10 colleges said travel allowances should be paid to 16-19 year olds living three miles or more from college. A similar proportion thought that access funds should be extended.
Although most colleges were supportive - "a very welcome move" and "an excellent opportunity" were two comments - some were more cautious. "The impact of all this will be too expensive in the end, but I am happy to support the concepts at this stage," said one.
Others were worried that the administrative burden of implementing such a scheme would fall on colleges. John Brennan, AOC development director, said that while the proposals were a step in the right direction, they didn't go far enough.
"It is vital that a new national system is put in place for FE student support. The old system based on local education authority discretionary awards has clearly broken down.
"The Lane prescription represents a reasonable way forward but it isn't ideal by any means. It will leave many FE students far worse placed than their higher education counterparts," he said.
Other key players in post-school education gave qualified backing to the plans. The National Union of Students said that while it broadly agreed with the principles "the issue of coherence is crucial. A coherent new system of financial support for post-16 education must match the current and projected future of FE provision."
The NUS, which last month brokered a deal with London Transport to provide discounts on Travelcards for students in the capital, called on colleges to make bulk purchase agreements, such as that made by West Sussex college. And they warned that the Lane report's recommendation of a minimum entitlement of Pounds 300 per annum would cost more than Pounds 300 million - a huge gap in funding that may leave the recommendation only partially implemented.