The pips have been squeaking in higher education recently. A current vice-chancellor was in print in the national press warning of apocalyptic unrest in the sector, all brought on by applying too little money to too many students. He was agonising about how difficult it was to ride the two horses of growth and quality simultaneously.
In the further education sector there is the same nagging feeling. The system is being tested to destruction: any day now bits of college, or whole colleges, will fall off.
Can this be the same sector which has been singled out by the Government for extra rations? Praised for its productivity? Well, yes: 21 months into incorporation, we have had time to read the small print. More money is available all right, but only after fierce efficiency gains, aka cost-cutting, have been achieved, and only in exchange for lots of lovely growth.
Unit costs are being ratcheted down by a funding formula which guarantees, year on year, only 90 per cent of your previous budget. The rest is good behaviour in finding more students and teaching them more cheaply.
Since the formula was designed largely by a group of college managers, we can hardly complain about the way they have chosen to pass on the pain which the government required us all to endure. How much pain depends very largely on how mature the college was before incorporation. Since growth is our prime objective, and it must be so because to stand still is to decline, colleges which had already achieved sharp increases will struggle. If the post-16 participation rate has already hit the mid-eighties and if the industrialcommercial sector has been well and truly penetrated, you are going to find life a lot harder than if 40 per cent of young people still quit the classroom as soon as they are allowed, and local businesses hardly know you exist.
In an obvious but cruel way, past indolence or incompetence is now being handsomely rewarded, and some of the colleges showing the most spectacular growth are only doing what has been common practice in those other colleges which are now wallowing.
Life is hard in other ways, too. Colleges in the old local authority days were funded at very different levels. The most generous authorities paid three times as much per student as the meanest. Some of the fat is still there, to be lived on in these cold, wintry times. The Further Education Funding Council has set its heart on flattening out the differentials, but the process is a slow one, and the better-endowed colleges can continue to enjoy more modern and more plentiful equipment as well as lower building maintenance costs.
When you add to that the stubbornly-persisting labour relations problems of introducing a new, more demanding lecturer's contract, it is no wonder that those who work in colleges are asking out loud what happened to the promised benefits of incorporation.
We are not yet at the point of open revolt - or even near it. Colleges are still trying to shield students from the baleful efforts of the squeeze. Examples abound of lecturers dipping into their own pockets to buy materials, to pay for photo-copying and to support educational visits. It says a great deal for their professionalism, but even more about the cash shortage. I guess that colleges are still hoping for something to turn up: a change of governmental heart, or even a change of government, which could put more money into the system.
The FEFC may do its best to share cash out more fairly, colleges may bust a corporate gut to make cost economies at the same time as volume gains but the certainty remains that there is simply not enough money in the system to allow us to do what the Government says it wants of us. We cannot turn the economy round, we cannot transform the skills base and we cannot bring post-compulsory participation up to Japanese levels in the funding we currently have.
We will, of course, struggle on, growing cynical at the shouts of encouragement, trying to hold morale and quality together. As the reports come in, however, of serious difficulties in the sector, we will know that these are the first public signs of what most of us hope to keep private as long as we can. Competition, the educational market-place, efficiency drives, all admirable in themselves, when taken together mean that the freedom we were handed in April 1993 will come to be seen by some as the freedom to sack, to close and to fail.
Michael Austin is Principal of Accrington and Rossendale College and chair of the Association for Colleges.