Editor's comment

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Liberal Democrats have failed the key test of whether or not they deserve the further education vote - even before the General Election has been called.

David Rendel, their further and higher education spokesman, refuses to make any pledge to close the funding gap between schools and colleges (page 3).

The party may wish to do so but he uses the somewhat specious argument that they are avoiding spending pledges at this stage.

Since when did that stop a political party making bold promises? Labour has stuck to its pledge to close the gap for the past seven years. It may be tardy in the delivery but only this week, Kim Howells, FHE minister, reasserted it (page 2).

Even arch-advocate of competition Sir Cyril Taylor, chair of the Specialist Schools Trust insists there must be an "agreed tariff" for schools and colleges if students are to take courses at different institutions (TES Platform 21). Sir Mike Tomlinson made such assertions even more strongly in FE Focus last week.

Let us hope Liberals are not slipping into that frame of mind that says:

"FE pledges don't win votes." They have certainly been more preoccupied with HE tuition fees than college funding of late. A refusal to make such a funding pledge undermines other promises. They have bold ideas such as big increases in capital spending on colleges. But this takes years and catch-up cash is needed now.

Eight years into a Labour government and what do we see? National strike threats by lecturers and support staff on pay. Why? Because however much new cash there has been, it has not stretched beyond other priorities - pensions and National Insurance increases, cutting debts and funding record numbers of 16 to 19-year-olds - to reach pay significantly.

The arguments for closing the gap have been rehearsed to death. From parity of esteem to equal pay for the same job done, as boundaries between schools and colleges blur across the 14 to 19 age range, current pay differentials make less sense than ever.

Indeed, maybe college lecturers and workplace tutors should argue for more pay than schoolteachers get, given the overwhelming numbers of disaffected and underachieving students they must rescue from social and economic exclusion.

Phil Willis, Lib Dem education spokesman, will be talking about colleges and party manifestos in the next few weeks. He has the chance then to spell out exactly what they would do on funding. If he really wants the FE vote, there must be no equivocation.

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