Funding reform 'sanitises' colleges

5th May 1995 at 01:00
FE colleges are now being subjected to a funding formula aimed at pushing everyone rapidly towards national average levels of spending. It is euphemistically described as "convergence" of funding regime.

The argument - from the Funding Education Funding Council and no doubt the Treasury - seems to be that the sector can do more for less, and that there is a norm of funding level. Many would argue that such a norm is acceptable.

However, there are a number of fundamental questions: How was the norm value arrived at and did it take into account the diverse nature of colleges ? Where is the evidence and can it not be published? After all, the FE sector is often stated as possessing great diversity.

This arises from its wide range of programmes of study and variety of student attendance patterns and study methods, many of which are specifically vocationally focused. And many colleges in inner cities are having to cope with significant levels of disadvantage amongst their students.

Therefore, to impose a fairly simplistic norm of funding, albeit with a plus or minus l0 per cent variance, seems questionable. It surely cannot do justice to the existing diversity of colleges.

Could it be that the Government and the FEFC want a nice, simple, homogenised sector? If that is the case, convergence of funding will give it to them, but an awful lot of important and strategic provision will be lost. Furthermore, a great deal of provision for the disadvantaged will also be lost.

The FEFC has devised a weighting formula aimed at ensuring colleges which run more expensive courses do not lose out. Many advocates of normative funding would argue that the way it is applied within each programme area meets the higher cost of teaching or the additional services that are required within the programmes.

I feel that this is not the case. Many programmes of study in key areas of employment like engineering, science, built environment and applied social sciences, do not recruit large groups of students and, because they cost more to deliver, makes the unit cost much higher than the weightings currently assigned to them.

If the convergence regime goes ahead at the current rate over the period of time stated, much provision will disappear. A reappraisal would make certain that vast tracts of work do not vanish under this very harsh regime, and a sanitised and homogenous sector established to produce people for careers that already are oversubscribed.

Is this the end of the story? Sadly not. There are other pressures on budgets. Monies are being lost with the introduction of training credits - which give trainees and employers cash vouchers to purchase training from whoever they wish. There is no let-up in the problems associated with cuts in discretionary grants from LEAs. And the lack of clarity about the reformed "21-hour rule" - restricting the time the unemployed can study without loss of benefits - means that the financial situation of colleges is dire.

Dick Evans is principal of Stockport College of Further and Higher Education

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