Out of the red and into the pink;FE Focus

5th March 1999 at 00:00
Neil Munro talks to the 43 incorporated colleges about their new-found wealth from Donald Dewar's 'funding revolution'

COLLEGE principals were in the unaccustomed position this week of heaping fulsome praise on a Government funding announcement - but the welcome is not universal. A number continue to criticise the lack of transparency that makes decisions about individual colleges difficult to understand. They are now looking to the new funding council, which takes full powers on July 1, to bring a clearer rationale.

The college with the most to shout about, however, is remaining mysteriously silent. Aberdeen, which gets the largest increase at pound;2.2 million, is refusing to comment and a spokesman declined to elaborate when pressed.

Others gave the announcement a general welcome - Angus, Ayr, Banff and Buchan, Bell, Borders, Cardonald, Clackmannan, Clydebank, Cumbernauld, Dumfries and Galloway, Dundee, Edinburgh's Telford, Elmwood, Fife, most of the Glasgow colleges, Glenrothes, Inverness, James Watt, Kilmarnock, Lauder and Thurso. Most believed it would widen student access, open up distance learning and bring more financial stability into the system.

Tom Wilson, principal of Glasgow College of Building and Printing, summarised the general outlook: "It's not the end of the troubles for everybody but it's a huge and significant step forward."

But some principals such as Janet Lowe at Lauder and Tony Godden at West Lothian criticised the lack of clarity in the way the money is distributed, a long-running complaint in the colleges. Ms Lowe said it was not clear why some colleges had hefty increases while others did less well. She hoped the funding council would address the issue.

Calculations by the Association of Scottish Colleges show a huge variation in the fortunes of the incorporated colleges, ranging from a cash decrease in recurrent grant of 2.2 per cent for Glasgow College of Food Technology (the only one to suffer) to a rise of more than 19 per cent for Thurso College. The largest increase of all - 72 per cent - went to Orkney College, which is still managed by the local authority.

Mr Godden queried the basis on which some colleges qualified as rural or semi-rural. The western areas of West Lothian raised costs because of transporting students to college yet there was no allowance for this factor. In many cases, the rural sums will do no more than compensate colleges for the disappearance of the pound;250,000 "fixed-cost element" which was designed to meet overheads and has been reduced this year to pound;120,000.

He also drew attention to the remarkably similar rises of 3-4 per cent awarded to most of the Edinburgh and Lothian colleges. "Perhaps they didn't grow as fast as some of the others," he remarked.

Peter Duncan, principal of the Central College of Commerce in Glasgow, complained that the long-awaited strategic framework for FE was not being published until later this month. "We have got the cash before the strategy, but it should be the other way round," he said.

Despite the unprecedented cash increases, and more promised in the next two years, a familiar story is still unfolding in a number of colleges. Stow in Glasgow and Elmwood in Fife, for example, complain that student growth has not been matched by funding.

Barony's rural costs earned it pound;80,000 but this was matched by an pound;80,000 cut in fixed-cost support, while money for infrastructure and IT is ring-fenced. "We really have very little room for manoeuvre," David Rose, the principal, said.

The Dumfries college will none the less receive pound;120,000 more than this year's initial grant but believes it would have got another pound;80,000 if the money had matched student growth of 6 per cent. "This settlement is really saying to us that the small colleges are on their way out," Mr Rose said.

Oatridge, another agricultural college in West Lothian, does not believe it is out of the woods either. Its basic grant will rise by 2 per cent, which is below inflation. Patricia Skett, the registrar, says: "There is no doubt at all that the small specialist college will continue to face problems."

Bob Allan, assistant principal at Cambuslang where there is a redundancy dispute with the unions, said the college was disappointed, although it is still analysing the results.

Jim Neil, principal at Dumfries and Galloway, while praising "a serious step forward in support for FE", hoped the ring-fenced money would leave colleges with some room for financial manoeuvre. At Falkirk, despite a pound;1 million rise in its core grant, a "disappointing" settlement is unlikely to be enough for any pay award, according to Maxwell Sharp, the depute principal. But Mr Sharp was relieved that it will at least meet the existing pay bill.

Although Jewel and Esk Valley College gets an extra pound;900,000, basic recurrent grant will rise by less than pound;500,000, barely keeping pace with inflation, Norman Leitch, the depute principal, said.

Hugh Kirk, depute principal at John Wheatley College in Glasgow, is also despondent. Recurrent grant is down by 1 per cent if the earmarked sums for Higher Still, wider access, infrastructure and IT are removed.

The picture from Lews Castle College in Stornoway is worrying despite a 7 per cent rise overall, according to Donald Macleod, the depute principal. Although there is an extra pound;400,000 to reflect the higher island costs, the safety net which cushioned the college with pound;342,000 this year has been removed and there is pound;80,000 less for overhead costs. The college is also projecting a pound;200,000 deficit by the end of March and Mr Macleod said it would be making a case to the Scottish Office for pound;250,000 just to balance the books.

Jim Marshall, resource manager at Moray College, said: "It's not bonanza time." The college's grant rise is pound;370,000 after ring-fenced money for infrastructure and IT is discounted. This was "not a dynamic increase" in the face of investment needs and rising costs.

Motherwell, although better off by pound;800,000, received less because other colleges needed more support, according to Richard Millham, the principal. The college is now in its second year of surplus.

Mike Webster, the Perth College principal, is also disappointed despite an overall allocation up by 5 per cent and bursary cash up by 14 per cent. But basic grant has risen by only 1.4 per cent, less than inflation and much less than the 6 per cent growth last year.

The impact on Reid Kerr in Paisley, currently putting together a rescue plan at a cost of 75 jobs, is unclear and Matt Aird, the principal, would not be drawn. The settlement is worth almost pound;1 million extra but that follows a pound;500,000 grant reduction this year.

Michael Leech, principal at Stevenson College in Edinburgh, says that, while the settlement was less than he had hoped, the overall pound;41 million increase is only the first stage of an extra pound;214 million. "So we must all keep our nerve," Mr Leech said.

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