Colleges' plea for more cash

8th July 2005 at 01:00
Ministers' idea that a funding shortfall can be fixed by higher fees is unrealistic, says AoC chief. Steve Hook reports.

Colleges have denied failing to have a "grown-up" dialogue after being lambasted by ministers for "throwing stones" at them over FE funding levels.

John Brennan, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, this week made an impassioned plea for ministers to be realistic about colleges'

ability to raise fees to alleviate the pressure on adult courses which are being chopped across the country.

He said the assumption that colleges can raise 25 per cent of the cost of courses from students is unrealistic, and that the Government's view that this could increase to 27.5 per cent is not backed up by evidence that the market will support such charges.

The Learning and Skills Council, which funds post-16 education, has insisted colleges could do more to extract money from students on courses that fall outside the Government's priority areas.

The priorities for government funding include courses for 16 to 19-year-olds, basic skills and level 2 (GCSE grades A*-C equivalent) provision for adults.

While activity in the priority areas has been expanding, with more students and adults returning to education, colleges have been forced to raid other adult education budgets. This is to keep pace with demand, despite the overall increase in funding from the Department for Education and Skills.

Mr Brennan spoke to FE Focus after further and higher education minister Bill Rammell last week accused the AoC of "1970s-style campaigning, throwing stones from the sidelines".

The AoC says the Government is failing to take account of the historical difficulty faced by colleges in increasing fees.

Refuting the accusation of "stone-throwing", Mr Brennan said: "We need a grown-up dialogue. But that requires responsibility and understanding.

"We respect that the Government is the elected body for making decisions about how the sector should develop."

He said colleges had planned for an increase in funding of 7.6 per cent, based on the figures from ministers and the LSC.

This was expected to consist of 2.5 per cent for inflation, 2.5 per cent in funding aimed at improving quality under the Government's Success for All policy, and a further amount of around 2.5 per cent to cover the cost of growth - particularly in the 16-19 area, where colleges are expected to increase student numbers as the Government aims to stop teenagers from dropping out of education after school.

The AoC insists that colleges were taken by surprise when they found their allocations for the coming academic year averaged out at 4.3 per cent - which the AoC says is the equivalent to a national shortfall of pound;150 million.

Mr Brennan said the cuts in areas that fall outside the Government's priorities are undermining further education's ability to serve its traditional function in local communities.

He said: "The role of colleges is to meet the needs of their communities.

These needs exist as well as government priorities. They are part of colleges' core business."

He said universities have been able to make their own decisions about what students need, asking "Why not colleges?"

He accepts that colleges need to do more to increase the percentage of income they raise from fees, but says they have suffered from over-optimistic assumptions about what students and employers are willing to pay.

These assumptions date back to incorporation, when colleges left local education authority control, he said. In 1993, there was an assumption that colleges could raise 25 per cent of course costs from students.

The idea that this was ever achieved, is a "myth", he said.In fact, colleges were getting an average of 12 to 14 per cent.

He said that actual fees remain at the same level to this day and that the DfES's assumption that colleges can get 27.5 per cent is unrealistic in the short-term.

Colleges, he said, certainly believe it is not something that can be achieved in time for the 20056 academic year.

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