The UK Government spends one-third less on education and training than do most other advanced industrial nations. Annual spending is around 1 per cent of GDP, compared with 1.5 per cent elsewhere.
Further education consistently bears the brunt of the shortfall. While ministers exhort employers to pay more for training, they nevertheless divert cash from mainstream FE to pay for it. This leaves even less under the direct control of colleges and other providers.
While other countries, notably the Netherlands and Australia, have distinctive vocational and further education training systems, colleges in the UK continue to search around a mine of convoluted and constantly changing government policies and priorities for a clear identity and purpose. This is not, however, a story of "us bad, everywhere else good".
Indeed, many countries admire and wish to emulate our system of colleges that reach across the community. But would these countries leave their colleges in a continued state of uncertainty?
When Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, recently declared that further education's time had come, colleges did not expect this to be limited to 14 to 19-year-olds. It is, however, because there is too little cash to pay for anything else. Indeed, the Commons education select committee last week berated ministers for failing to spell out the full extent of cash shortages facing education. If anyone is pinning hopes on the FE white paper, due in 10 days, they are likely to be disappointed. Pledges including staff professional development and universal entitlement to A-level-equivalent training for all to age 25 will be there. However, there will be little new cash to pay for them before 2009.
All the signs are that the white paper will be a lacklustre affair - not really a white paper, nor a green paper, barely a consultation paper. It will be Skills paper Mark III, cherry-picking recommendations in the Foster review of colleges and the Learning and Skills Council's Agenda for Change that suit short-term expedients.
It will be a matter of big vision, small money - maybe jam tomorrow. This is exactly what colleges have been hearing for the 14 years since incorporation.
Then, for colleges, the real devil is in the detail of the Schools Bill, not the white paper. This is where the impact of FE planning and recruitment will be felt, as reported in FE Focus last week.With the final version of the white paper now being drafted, let us hope for some pleasant surprises.