Never mind first, funding cuts are the deepest

29th January 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Alan Thomson

Last week this newspaper was hoping that further education would escape the very worst of the impending financial storm about to hit the public sector. A week on, and sadly, the storm clouds have anchored themselves firmly over FE providers (page 1).

Reports are emerging of cuts in adult learner responsive (ALR) funding of up to 25 per cent. Scores of colleges seem to be hit and the best that any college can hope for is a 10 per cent cut.

A sense of foreboding and anger is growing. Foreboding at what these cuts will mean for students and staff, and anger at the way that euphemistic efficiency gains have transformed into cataclysmic cuts.

How this came to pass is an old story, but with an added twist. It has been long known that governments will put the best spin on their budgets: there was a time after 1997 when every "new" pot of money was mostly made up of sums already announced.

That practice no doubt continues but the Government seems now to favour the old magicians' practice of misdirection.

Take Kevin Brennan's speech to last year's Association of Colleges conference where he held up the pound;30 million extra for ALR announced in the Skill Investment Strategy (page 4).

He certainly was not going to draw uneccessary attention to the less attractive parts of the strategy, namely the 3 per cent cut in funding per adult student, the 6 per cent cut in Train to Gain, the 3 per cent from adult apprenticeships and the further 10 per cent from over-25 apprenticeships.

Any politician would have done the same and Mr Brennan did warn of efficiencies. It remains to be seen what 25 per cent greater "efficiency" does to educational effectiveness.

But beyond the politicking lies a problem with the way FE and skills providers are funded in England. Even in the best of times the highly centralised and compartmentalised funding system is too slow and inflexible to deliver a demand-led system.

Few businesses on the face of the planet will rely on a funding system quite as oil tankerish as the one that serves FE providers.

The Government has announced in-year adjustments for student growth and decline. This is a start but providers really need proper ongoing input into the planning and funding of provision.

A recession always brings cuts. But how much better off might providers have been had they had a hand on the funding tiller as the storm hit?

Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus


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