The biggest inquiry so far into the funding and working of the further education sector since incorporation was published this week. Ngaio Crequer and Harvey McGavin report.
Further education has been required to make efficiency savings "way beyond" those expected of other parts of the education and employment system, say MPs on the Commons education select committee.
Their hard-hitting report on the sector was published this week and is the result of 11 months of work by the committee chaired by Margaret Hodge.
It says: "Further education has reached the stage where the Government now has to make choices and explain its priorities. The key point is that criteria for the allocation of public money to further education should be made clear."
It notes there has been a marked increase in the number of fin-ancially weak colleges, from 6 per cent in 1994 to 27 per cent in 1997, and that the wealth of the sector will decline further this year. "There are arguments about the extent to which poor financial health is directly linked with levels of funding. The National Audit Office has concluded that there is a correlation between colleges in poor financial health and their management and governance."
The report says the Government must make it clear what it wishes to fund in FE policy. It identifies the key areas for colleges as: 16-19 provision; adult learning; widening participation; training relevant to employment; and basic skills.
FE colleges should not have to face an efficiency saving any greater than that agreed for universities - 1 per cent. The report estimates that FE will take about 430,000 of the 500,000 additional students the Government intends to enter further and higher education. It argues for funding for capital expenditure, including equipment and communications technology, and more for student expansion.
"The decline in financial support for further education students in recent years runs wholly counter to the aim of increasing participation in FE for all parts of our society," says the report, which attacks the differences in access to financial support across the country.
There must be increased support for students "as a right". It continues:
"We also urge the Government to examine the possibility of replacing the child benefit paid to parents of 16 to 19-year-olds in full-time education with student support grants. This could give an incentive for young people to remain in full-time education."