Curriculum cash diverted
Leaders of the six largest organisations representing FE colleges are pressing ministers for more than Pounds 15 million - which they have spent subsidising transport costs - to be returned.
Under the 1994 Education Act, LEAs are obliged to assist FE students with transport, although they do not have to pay the full costs.
Colleges are diverting cash earmarked for the curriculum and student support in order to provide buses and trains to take students to college following local authority cuts to transport grants.
One of the hardest hit colleges is Brockenhurst, which signed a deal with local bus and rail operators when Hampshire County Council cut subsidised travel. At least 1,000 students were paying Pounds 75 for an annual pass and were dependent on the buses and trains to reach the college in the middle of the New Forest.
Alternative services have been arranged by the college but it has resulted in at least a doubling of transport costs for students.
A recent survey by the Association for Colleges, which has co-ordinated a submission to the Department for Education and Employment on behalf of the six biggest college organisations, found that LEAs were expectedto pay Pounds 32 million last year. But colleges had to shell out at least half of this because of LEA cuts.
John Brennan, the AFC's policy director, said those worst hit were the rural colleges, where transport was often non-existent. "It's something colleges are having to spend money on because it affects enrolments and admissions," he said.
Transport concerns are increasingly highlighted in strategic plans, which colleges must send to the Further Education Funding Council. The impact varies markedly. A study in Norfolk by the FEFC's regional committee found that LEA policy, which requires students to buy a Pounds 135 travel pass, had made little difference to whether colleges hit enrolment targets.
But Mr Brennan said this was not the picture throughout the country. "There are a lot of factors which affect enrolment targets, but colleges definitely see transport as crucial to the participation and retention of students. "
Mike Snell, principal of Brockenhurst College, had no doubt of the impact after investigating student responses to Hampshire's cuts. Without subsidised fares their travel costs would have soared, and the college risked losing many of its students. The deal he signed with Wiltshire and Dorset Buses and South West Trains prevented an exodus. The cost of passes has now gone up to Pounds 150, but this is still far cheaper than if students bought tickets directly from the bus and rail companies.
Brockenhurst, which is subsidising the cost of transport by more than Pounds 100,000 a year, is no stranger to putting on buses for some of its 1,800 students. Prior to the latest local authority cuts it was already running three buses per day for students who lived on the outskirts of Southampton, outside the college's old LEA catchment area. The task of agreeing the contract is another cost; the college was legally required to put it out to tender. Seven firms were invited to bid, but Wilts and Dorset, which previously ran buses for the county council, was always the favourite. "We wanted a very specific service and there was only one provider who could meet the requirements, " Mr Snell said.
Staff time was also absorbed in assessing likely take-up. Survey forms were sent out asking students to suggest the most convenient pick-up points and to determine the extra buses needed for services across a wide area of Wiltshire and Dorset.
Since the service started, it has expanded to include a railway link service to the local railway station, half a mile from the college.
Mr Brennan said: "Colleges are responding to need. But they should not have to pay the costs."