Get out of FE impasse

6th July 2001 at 01:00
While ministers trumpet their claims that we are in the midst of the biggest ever increase in spending on the public services, staff in Scotland's further education colleges are bracing themselves for yet another round of cuts and redundancies, as your report last week indicated.

The majority of colleges are operating under accumulated financial deficits and boards of management are seeking to deal with the problem by imposing redundancies and other cuts, with the approval of the FE funding council.

Just how this situation can result in the expansion of lifelong learning, which is the Executive's wish, is a mystery to most in the sector. It appears likely that instead of channelling its energies towards serving student needs, FE is about to embark on yet another bout of industrial unrest and disputes.

A way out of this apparent impasse needs to be found quickly. Since the problems stem from college financial deficits, could the Executive and the Parliament not resolve to write off these deficits and allow the sector to start anew.

If that is deemed too radical, or utopian, a more modest proposal could be considered. The funding council is requiring colleges in deficit to submit financial recovery plans. These recovery plans are usually based on staff redundancies and other cuts in the service which are provoking conflict and leading to disputes. Would it not be possible for the funding council to waive the instruction to submit financial recovery plans for a specified period. At a stroke, that would ease the pressures on the sector and allow a period for discussion and reflection.

Round-table discussions could be held involving all interested parties - not just the Executive, the funding council and the unions, but students, community representatives, employers, and, dare one suggest it, the local authorities and the STUC. Such a forum could examine in detail the problems facing the sector and come to a view about the levels of funding and management structures that are required to deliver the Government's educational and social aims.

This would take a year or two, by which time, of course, elections will be taking place for a new Parliament with a new legislative timetable. The problems confronting further education would have been thoroughly examined and could then be dealt with by a comprehensive Bill presented by the Executive.

Joe Eyre 111 Old Castle Road Glasgow

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