Colleges must learn to speak with one voice

20th June 1997 at 01:00
Too much competitiveness was a theme of the Education Minister's speech to the Association of Scottish Colleges conference (page one), but even rivals of West Lothian College should be glad that there is good news from the sector. The Government, using the publicprivate partnership, has given the go ahead for a Pounds 15 million development by West Lothian in Livingston. Despite the recent expansion of further education, to which Brian Wilson paid tribute, tangible signs of major investment are rare. They make a welcome change from upsurges of industrial unrest and constant complaints by principals about the Government's funding regime.

The principals and chairmen gathered at Dunkeld were pleased by the new minister's affirmations of support. They knew they were not going to get firm statements of policy so early in his tenure of office and while a funding review is under way. For details of how the new sums are being worked out (or the new SUMS for that matter, since FE funding jargon invites puns), the ASC conference looked to Ed Weeple, the departmental under-secretary. He held out no early promises of greater clarity or charity.

The inadequacies of the existing funding mechanism understandably obsess principals. They claim that enterprise goes unrewarded, coherent planning is inhibited and staff relations suffer. So when allegedly overzealous competitors get together, they are quick to cooperate on voicing their concerns. Devising an alternative model which would accommodate their different aims and missions produces less agreement.

The ASC has to bear in mind that policy decisions about post-school education form the setting in which funding decisions are taken. The Dearing committee (and its Scottish subset chaired by Ron Garrick) is shortly to make recommendations which will be pounced on by higher education interests and subjected to the most intense scrutiny before the Government makes decisions.

It is not only because many Scottish colleges have significant HE programmes that the ASC has to pay attention to Dearing. Decisions about the weighting of money spent on post-school education will follow the Dearing debate. FE principals claim they use resources more efficiently than their counterparts in university. But who will speak loudest after Dearing? Undoubtedly the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and its Scottish equivalent.

The ASC is only a year old. It is still establishing its place among the interest groups which government consults and which pronounce on policy. It does not yet have a high media profile. At its conference in Dunkeld, a draft strategy statement said that lobbying policy-makers and opinion formers and making the public more aware of the FE sector had to be a principal objective. To college lecturers aggrieved by changed conditions of service and alleged management highhandedness, the aspirations of the ASC must appear remote.

Individual principals are concerned about matching courses to funds. But the resolution of college problems is bound to depend on the outcome of national debates in which a unified FE voice has to be heard loudly and intelligently.

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