One phrase in the MORI poll report on public attitudes towards colleges'
fees is telling. While the pollsters say most people think individuals should pay higher fees (page 3), they also stress the need for a marketing plan: "There is certainly a strong need for the Government to raise public awareness that it pre-subsidises FE courses," says the report.
MORI points the finger at those most responsible for the present low fees.
Low fees were encouraged to boost student recruitment by the very Government that commissioned the poll.
Not until 2002 was there any significant change in thinking within the Department for Education and Skills. Then, only when ministers realised a Treasury squeeze was coming that would starve their skills-for-work strategy of cash.
What was needed then - as it is now - was a well-planned, national, government-driven marketing campaign, as we saw with the "Gremlins" attack on illiteracy, schoolteacher recruitment and higher education fees.
No one knows to what extent a huge hike in fees over two to three years will damage college recruitment (and income). It suited ministers, the DfES and colleges in the past to massage figures in repeated battles over funding for colleges. Any decline will send to the public misleading messages about the quality of FE.
A national strike by lecturers in Natfhe and a picket of Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's visit to the Association of Colleges' annual conference in Birmingham is timed for next week. The cause is that ever-growing pay gap with schoolteachers. Colleges are in the worst position for eight years to do anything about it. A decline in student numbers as higher fees bite will not help.
Every fee-paying adult student should receive a statement showing exactly how much the taxpayer contributes to his or her studies. If this does not shame the "Gin and Jag" set into paying a realistic price for its Spanish classes, it should alert them to the true value for money that is FE.
A raft of measures are needed to raise the profile of further education, from clearer statements of the benefits of FE - which colleges could manage - to a national TV campaign. As FE Focus argued last week, and our letters reiterate this week (below), there is a need for a bigger national initiative, including loans and tax breaks. Colleges cannot win and sustain arguments locally without national Government initiative.