Lib Dems afraid to commit

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Dismay as party refuses to pledge that it would fund colleges as generously as schools. Huw Richards reports

Liberal Democrats have refused to pledge to close the funding gap with schools as they go into the general election.

While the party promises to raise capital expenditure for colleges, its refusal to close the funding gap, still around 10 per cent, will dismay lecturers and managers who were hoping such a pledge from the Liberals would press the bigger parties to make similar commitments.

David Rendel MP, Liberal Democrat spokesman on further and higher education, told FE Focus that his party would create a Colleges for the Future programme along the lines of Building Schools for the Future, the capital funding programme that will put pound;2.2 billion into school building - pound;1.2bn through PFI projects - in the 2005-6 financial year.

He said: "There is no doubt colleges need something similar, and that would become possible as the schools programme is completed and the funding stream becomes available." However, he could not say how much money might be available to colleges. This is in line with the party's wariness about spending commitments.

Mr Rendel, who met college and student representatives to discuss the funding gap last week, said: "There is no doubt it is a serious problem, creating issues of morale in colleges which have to be addressed. It has created inequalities of pay and means staff are being lost to schools."

His party, though, is not as yet prepared to go beyond the three spending pledges: the abolition of university tuition fees, free personal care for the sick and elderly and the replacement of the council tax by a local income tax - which it would fund by introducing a 50 per cent tax rate on income over Pounds 100,000. It is possible, though, that this may change before the election. Phil Willis MP, Lib Dem education spokesman, is expected to make a major speech on colleges in the next few weeks.

Like other party spokesmen, Mr Rendel, who is defending a thin 2,415 majority in Newbury, has had to devote most of his time and attention to higher education and the tuition fees debate.

His party believes its fees pledge will be popular with students and last week listed 27 constituencies in which the student vote is larger than the majorities of sitting Labour or Tory members over Liberal Democrat rivals.

In fact, FE students he met last week were at least as interested in the tuition fees issues as in the funding gap.

He points to the Liberal Democrats as the one party fully committed to replacing A-levels and GCSE with a diploma, as the Tomlinson report wants:

"The other parties want to keep A-levels and GCSEs. We argue that if you keep them, employers and universities will simply. . . ignore the other qualifications. Nothing will change, the distinction between vocational and academic qualifications will remain as wide as ever and it will defeat the whole purpose of the exercise."

Lib Dems call for the creation of a "climbing frame" of 14-plus qualifications, easing movement between different courses, institutions and, where possible, national systems. Mr Rendel said: "This will mean getting the credit transfer system right and it isn't quite there at present."

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