Progress with Pounds 84m price tag

12th January 1996 at 00:00
The long-awaited Higginson Report proposes a massive investment in technology. But can colleges afford the price of change? Lucy Ward reports. Colleges will have to decide if they are prepared to pay the price of technological progress as they assess the multi-million pound proposals of the Higginson Report.

The report, published this week after two years' work by Sir Gordon Higginson's committee, proposes a five-year plan comprising an Pounds 84 million package of initiatives to step up the use of new technology in further education.

The Further Education Funding Council will now consult colleges on the recommendations, leaving principals to judge the value of high-cost schemes such as a sector-wide electronic network against a backdrop of dwindling budgets. In the autumn Budget Pounds 100 million was axed from the sector's capital funds over the next three years.

Though few principals might argue in principle with the proposals drawn up by the committee for nationally-focused efforts to boost learning technologies in FE, managers may find the option of the FEFC top-slicing cash centrally for the scheme harder to swallow.

As FEFC finance director Roger McClure points out, once the Government fixes the sum to be allocated to the sector, the argument centres on whether the council takes the spending decision itself or "pushes it out to the colleges".

Any expectations of pleading for extra Government cash for the initiative look set to be disappointed. "It is important to realise that a certain sum of money is made available by the Secretary of State to the sector and there is nothing the council can do to increase that," Mr McClure said.

The ever-cautious FEFC is aware of the risk of angering principals by too eagerly backing a costly national scheme. It points to the possibility of deals on new technology services being offered to the sector as competition grows in the industry. The Higginson Report is being greeted by funding chiefs not so much as a plan of action but as a much-needed focal point for ideas.

The committee, meanwhile, suggests a "pump-priming" approach to fundings, in which the FEFC is asked to provide support over five years, during which time there would be a gradual transfer of costs to individual colleges.

Out of an estimated Pounds 84 million required, up to Pounds 60 million would be financed centrally, while around Pounds 25 million would come from colleges. The council's contribution, according to the committee's broad costings, would drop from Pounds 17 million in the first year to Pounds 6 million in the fifth, while the colleges' would rise from nothing to Pounds 10 million.

There is no suggestion that colleges would - or indeed could - be compelled to contribute cash, according to committee member and Newark and Sherwood College principal, John Gray. However, he adds, "the basic assumption is that there will be very few colleges that at some stage will not become involved in this".

The urgent need for a programme to bring the FE sector up to speed on new technologies is clearly spelled out in the report, which says: "If we fail to seize the opportunity for action, colleges and their students will be disadvantaged in an increasingly competitive world."

The committee is anxious that attention given to the report should not be deflected solely to the issue of cost.

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