Editor's Comment

1st July 2005 at 01:00
It is another tremendous year for colleges as they hit targets two years ahead of schedule. Ministers and policy-makers should reflect on how this was achieved and consider the long-term implications.

Detailed evidence to the national inquiry into adult education - commissioned by Niace, the organisation for adult learners - underlines the importance of getting everyone to level 2 (GCSE-equivalent).

From here, the step to level 3 (A-level-equivalent) is easier and the willingness of adults and employers to pay a share is greater.

Below level 3, there is little logic in demanding cash up front and narrowing targets to cover only skills.

As the work of Liverpool community college shows (page 2), there is no single royal road to basic skills and employability. To continue hitting targets, colleges need flexibility.

Canny colleges are already spotting loopholes, redefining "other" provision as Skills for Life programmes. There is the cash to escape a crisis. The irony is that ministers will be able to claim continuing success, as new skills-only policies appear to hit the targets.

If this rings as bell, it is because that is what happened under Schedule 2 of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, which restricted state cash to certificated courses. Unfortunately, it also spawned new red tape and bureaucracy because funding chiefs feared accusations of turning a blind eye or of channelling cash into dubious courses.

Extra cash has come for some college adult courses and Bill Rammell, the further and higher education minister, is right to say a crisis this year is unlikely.

However, local learning and skills councils have warned principals that the crunch has merely been postponed a year.

The Government is also right to demand that those who can should pay. But there are double standards here. For example, why does every pensioner get the Pounds 200 winter fuel allowance and everyone over the age of 75 a free TV licence? Because anything else would create a nightmare of costly red tape and means testing.

Yet ministers will not apply the same logic to college managers who waive pound;100 million of fees a year, because collection costs would outweigh the benefits.

There has to be a better way to drive FE than a system of rigid cash limits and inflexible national targets. Even where such an approach succeeds, it breeds distrust and red tape as professionals look for loopholes to retain students who fall outside the grand plan.

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