Ministers' alarm at enrolment freefall

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
Funding changes blamed as student numbers drop, despite government targets. Ngaio Crequer reports

MINISTERS are becoming increasingly alarmed that colleges will fail to deliver the Government's ambitious targets for increased student numbers.

Last year, enrolments in further education were down by a staggering 100,000 over the previous year. This year's figures are still being validated, but it is predicted that they will be even worse.

Some college principals have heard talk of a 200,000 drop in enrolments, primarily because of the decline in franchising of courses.

Ministers have told the Further Education Funding Council that they are "exercised" by this situation. Continuing failure to recruit will leave in tatters the Government's target of a 700,000 rise in two years.

Last November, Malcolm Wicks, the lifelong learning minister, announced that the further education budget for 2001-2 would be increased by pound;365 million, taking the total extra investment in the sector over the next three years to pound;1.5 billion. But he famously warned that this was "money for something".

Geoff Hall, the FEFC's director of funding and strategy, said that for 1998-99 between 100 and 150 colleges were below "acceptable tolerance limits" for student growth. And this year there were no signs of a massive change, he said.

He recognised that studying is less popular than leisure activities: 74 per cent of people visit a pub regularly; 69 per cent eat out; 40 per cent visit a public library, 34 per cent go to the cinema, but only 22 per cent take part in lifelong learning.

But much of the shortfall is a direct result of the tightening-up of the rules goerning course franchising. This was because many colleges had over stretched themselves with off-site services.

City College, in Birmingham, is one of those experiencing problems. At the end of the last academic year, because of the rule changes, it gave up 99 per cent of the work it undertook outside Greater Birmingham.

"We are talking about 800 to 900 full-time equivalent students," said Chris Webb, the principal. "That's the size of a small sixth-form college." City could be forced to pay back around pound;3m of its pound;26m core funding.

The college identified the problem early, and is in discussion with the funding council. "It is in no one's interest to destabilise our college," said Mr Webb.

"We are caught between probity and ferocious competition with other local colleges.

"If other colleges don't do something now, they will certainly have to later. You cannot hide away in embarrassment just because there has been a policy change."

Another college with problems is Sheffield, even though it is the only FE college in the city and faces little competition.

John Brennan, director of development at the Association of Colleges, said franchising was a major factor but not the only one.

He said the problems began two to three years ago when colleges were first encouraged to recruit and then funding for increased rolls was withdrawn. Some colleges had adopted an optimistic strategy but had gone too far.

"What is not clear is how much demand is out there. Have we saturated the market?" he said.

"It is challenging for colleges, for the FEFC, and for the Government to energise the sector to get going again and to deliver."

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