More than a quarter of Scotland's further education colleges have been reprimanded by the Scottish Office for taking on more students than they should have. Some are having to repay up to nearly #163;200,000.
Fifteen colleges have been unable to give a satisfactory explanation of why they broke the Government's "cap" on higher education admissions two years ago. As a result their basic unit of funding, the so-called SUMS (student units of measurement) have been reduced. Thirteen colleges also "overclaimed" for students on more than one course of study.
But paradoxically the biggest sinners are not necessarily the most penalised. In fact, Falkirk College, which had most seriously exceeded the HE cap, ends up with an increase when this year's grants are recalculated to take account of the repayments demanded by the Scottish Office. That is because it is growing so rapidly that the extra due it outweighs any repayment.
Graham Clark, Falkirk's principal, said that the Government's letter headed "Recovery Action", which colleges were sent just before the Christmas holiday, was "sad and vindictive". He said it came just as colleges, which have been wrestling with their most difficult funding settlement, were looking forward to better times following the Government's comprehensive spending review. "Then they drag this up from the mid-nineties," Dr Clark said. "That's what upsets me."
He added that Falkirk had not purposely defied the cap on higher education students, although it regretted the restriction on a growth area.Because so many students entering to do a further education course went on later to a higher education one and recruitment of other HE students remained buoyant, the total exceeded the limit. "That is a legitimate reason if not an excuse, " Dr Clark said.
Tom Kelly, chief executive of the Association of Scottish Colleges, said:
"It is regrettable that the Scottish Office has penalised colleges so late in this very difficult financial year. But at least they are not being asked to repay money immediately. Deductions will be made through next year's grant. "
Glasgow College of Food Technology faces the biggest bill of #163;195, 000. Donald Leitch, principal, said that the funding formula was "too rigid" and colleges such as his which were outside the Government safety net that protects any from too severe a funding reduction, had been hardest hit.
He pointed to the contrasting fate of Glasgow College of Nautical Studies,whose SUMS transgression was about the same as at Food Technology.Because it is "safety netted" its recalculated grant shows a modest increase.
Mr Leitch added that the penalty was "a severe handicap" to a small college. "We will have to increase our income from non-Government sources. With the current focus on the food industry, that is exactly what we are doing."
The Scottish Office letter to principals makes clear that there is no change in this years total SUMs funding for colleges, which amounts to almost #163;230 million. The penalties and extra payments balance out.
Colin Reeves, an official in the FE funding division, wrote that it demonstrated "that the department is serious about implementing stated policies in a fair and consistent manner. "