Less cash, more students - can Sir Ron add up?

25th July 1997 at 01:00
Colleges have hundreds of sub-degree professional and management courses in the pipeline which they were forced to put on ice with the Government's higher education expansion freeze three years ago.

"Now is the time for a rapid thaw," Roger Ward, chief executive of the Association of Colleges said. "We have the capacity to reskill Britain. But colleges must be given a free hand and not tied to the dictates of the universities."

He was sceptical, however, about how any new cash would come to further education to meet the Dearing recommendations. "The higher education sector has lobbied very effectively to ring- fence cash to itself. How are we going to fund the huge expansion expected of us?" Mr Ward was deeply cynical of assertions in the higher education review that the 6.5 per cent efficiency drive in HE would damage quality. "If this is the case, then FE colleges should receive an immediate injection of cash. I sympathise with HE but only up to a point."

Sir Ron acknowledges in his report that there is inadequate new money through plans such as tuition fees to meet the full costs of higher education funding. What new cash is generated is likely to come from within the existing HE structure. But no indication is given as to where cash for HE expansion in FE can be found.

Nor is any thought given to the problems which will emerge in colleges where A-level students with hardship have no grants while those under the same roof but on HE courses are relatively well-off.

Nevertheless, colleges generally have welcomed the call for an immediate expansion of sub-degree - Higher National Certificate and Higher National Diploma courses - to be concentrated in the FE sector.

"We have so many good graduates, they are practically coming out of our ears," said Mr Ward. "Look at any of the comparative international education league tables and they confirm that it is at the technician level where Britain is falling down."

But while the expansion plans for the FE sector were welcomed, there were fears that the universities would dominate under the plans for strategic regional development spelled out in the report. It suggests that higher education institutions should be represented on the regional bodies and that the Further Education Funding Council regional committees should include a member from higher education.

"But there is no mention of the role individual FE colleges should play in the regions. They have been the drivers of regional regeneration," he said.

Ray Dowd, president of the Association for College Management, said: "The proposed Pounds 2 billion increase in recurrent funding for HE by 2017, if supported, should not be allocated without first reviewing the contribution made by FE towards meeting the lifelong learning targets. Funding for student support must be equal in further and higher education."

The emphasis on greater regional focus was welcome, he said, but it was essential that FE influenced policy, through the independent voice of the AOC, particularly over allocation of European Social Funds.

"The FE voice must not be subsumed into HE. Loss of autonomy could prove to be detrimental to lifelong learning and the provision of locally-based courses to meet the needs of the wider community," he said.

He added that the report struck the right note in recognising the problems of social disadvantage. "But it continues to promote HE in isolation from FE. It is critical that we get a consistent message across from the sector and influence what happens next."

He was also critical about the assumptions over funding in the report. "It talks of the need to encourage minority groups and widen participation. But Pounds 115 million cash for growth (the so-called demand-led element of funding) has been removed.

"That was the cash we used to attract the very students Sir Ron Dearing is talking about. Meanwhile, he is saying the universities need almost Pounds 1bn extra over the next two years. The logic does not add up."

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