Cross-border cash tangle looms

14th September 2007 at 01:00

Colleges with wide catchment areas stand to suffer bureaucracy nightmares under proposed funding changes

COLLEGES ARE attracting students from so far away that they could find themselves dealing with up to 70 different local authorities, under proposed changes to funding.

According to data analysis from the Association of Colleges, almost one-third of all students travel to a college in a neighbouring borough or even further afield. And in London the figures are even higher, with 58 per cent of students crossing local authority boundaries.

The most dramatic case is Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College, whose students travel from 70 authorities some from beyond the home counties. It even has one student who came to study sports science from Leeds.

The concern is that planned funding changes involving a handover of money to individual local authorities rather than the Learning and Skills Council might make it harder for students to choose out-of-borough colleges.

The AoC said it wanted to maintain students' freedom of choice, but it hoped that colleges would not be weighed down by multiple funding applications.

Julian Gravatt, the association's director of funding and development, said: "We would be failing as a system if we didn't allow students to exercise choice. We don't want to get back to a situation where it's more difficult for students to travel to colleges or schools in a different local authority. We don't think anybody is trying to do that, but there is a risk that might happen."

The Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills is expected to launch a consultation, not due for completion until 2010, on how the handover of funding will work.

One solution to the cross-boundary problem might be to adopt a system similar to that used in schools, where local authorities are given funding according to the number of pupils in their schools, rather than the number resident. But colleges would hope to avoid duplicating the complex, 160- formula system used to decide this.

Amarjit Basi, deputy principal of the Ealing college, said large institutions such as his, based in three boroughs, were likely to have a wide catchment area, but that specialist programmes such as BBC-backed media courses and specialised construction training also played their part.

"Even dealing with our three main local authorities is demanding," he said. "I can imagine the bureaucracy burden of this for FE colleges. It's not just channelling funding, it's support systems and welfare strategies and so on."

Local authorities, meanwhile, will be lobbying for the transfer of funding, which would give them real planning power over 14-19 education. They will also want to ensure that funding is not ring-fenced for colleges and sixth forms, so they can use education budgets for other services although they acknowledge this might bring them into conflict with colleges.

A report to the Local Government Association's children and young persons board sounded a warning note over the proposals last week. "Councils need to inherit the LSC's strategic powers so they can direct the overall system in their localities," it said. "It would be a disaster for them, and for the system as a whole, if they simply became a `post box' for Government funding a form of centralisation by the back door."

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