Minister warns colleges to be realistic and says FE is already receiving record levels of funding. Steve Hook reports
Colleges were promised everything except what they wanted as they took over a corner of the Palace of Westminster to make the case for more funding.
With an election pending, politicians from all the major parties were keen to state their commitment to further education last week, but even the Government, which has consistently increased the FE budget, has warned colleges to be realistic.
Kim Howells, the further and higher education minister, faced a packed committee room, including principals and students, for what must have been the most heated Parliamentary gathering outside the Budget announcement on the same day.
Mr Howells repeated previous comments by skills minister Ivan Lewis, calling on colleges to acknowledge the Government's record on funding.
He said: "FE is receiving record levels of funding. I am very confident that we can raise revenue, and that will help to close the gap. I don't know a time in my life when so much money has gone into education. We will continue to fight to try to get FE the funding that it needs.
"I don't buy the fact that FE is the Cinderella sector. It's baloney. When one person compared FE to a starving child, he angrily retorted: "Comparing the FE sector to a starving child is crap."
He said colleges will have to find other ways of raising money - including more fees.
The Conservatives repeated their mantra about freeing up resources by reducing red tape - including the closure of the Learning and Skills Council. But they say they will "match" current funding rather than increase it.
Conservative FE spokesman Mark Hoban said: "We want to replace the LSC with a funding council. It will deliver resources based on the students you recruit."
Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrats' FE spokesman, said base funding for students will be the same in FE as it is in schools by 2006 if his party wins power.
If the Government thinks its record on FE spending will see off the opposition, it might have more to fear from the Women's Institute, which also attended the lobby - along with some vocal elderly supporters.
Barbara Gill, chair of the National Federation of Women's Institutes, said:
"The WI organisation has developed very valuable partnerships with FE which has helped widen participation.
"These programmes of funding are classed as 'other' FE provision which is now under threat.
"We would urge the Government to ensure that adult education has its fair share of funding.
"If the Government expects women to work longer they must be given the opportunity to update their skills.
"We are campaigning once again to urge the Government to pay properly for this."
Others at the lobby included Dorothy Jones, president of the Association for College Management, Paul Mackney, general secretary of the lecturers'
union Natfhe, and David Rendel, Liberal Democrat education spokesman.
In a heated debate, it was suggested that pensioners would benefit from being able to use free public transport - announced in the Budget - to get to colleges. But a voice at the back protested: "And when they get there, there'll be no courses for them."
Secondary schools are supporting colleges' plea for resources. Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, told the lobby: "We have had a long-term campaign for a rational funding system in education. We can't argue for that on a rational basis for schools alone."
The Association of Colleges, which claims FE gets at least 10 per cent less funding than schools, wants more investment in the education of 16 to 19-year-olds and adults who face increased fees as colleges are forced to concentrate resources on the Government's priority areas.