The Scottish Executive faces an embarrassing challenge in its drive to recruit more teachers - at the hand of its own universities funding council.
The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council is due to meet HE interests next Monday to try to reach an accommodation. The General Teaching Council for Scotland will tackle the issue at its March meeting.
Politicians have joined educationists in urging the funding council to abandon a change which could lead to a pound;2 million cut in money paid to the universities for teacher education.
This would represent 6 per cent less. But the suggested model, one of two proposed in a consultation paper, would hit the four-year primary BEd course particularly hard. The main route into primary teaching, its funding would go down by 12 per cent at a time when the post-McCrone settlement requires 4,000 new teachers over the next decade; 3,000 of these are needed by 2005-06, which means BEd recruitment has to start now.
Even more embarrassing for ministers, however, is the prospect that accredited courses for teachers' continuous professional development (CPD), another key ingredient in the deal which has to be compulsory for all teachers from 2003, could also be put at risk. These courses could lose 15 per cent of their state income.
Although the funding council stresses that consultation will last until the end of March, Douglas Weir, dean of Strathclyde University's Jordanhill education faculty, says course teams already want reassurances. "What is the point in gearing up to take large numbers of additional student teachers over the next decade only to find our funding is to be eroded to a significant extent?" He added: "My nightmare scenario is that teachers come to us to say they want to go on an accredited course for their chartered teacher portfolio and we have to tell them we cannot afford to run the courses." He is also concerned that universities, who might be faced with raiding other ources of finance, will be reluctant to take on BEd students.
The sponsoring ministry for the funding council is the enterprise and lifelong learning department whose political boss, Wendy Alexander, was left trying to defend the position last week when she appeared before the Parliament's lifelong learning committee. Alex Neil, the committee's SNP convener, described the proposed changes as "sheer lunacy".
Ms Alexander took the opportunity to announce pointedly that a review of the funding council's effectiveness would begin later in the year. She said she had asked the council to talk to the universities to clear the air, but said she could not interfere with decisions taken by a quango.
In a statement, SHEFC said the plan was to simplify the way universities were funded, and this followed consultation with the HE sector. The proposal which has provoked such contention would reduce funded subject groups from 20 to six. This followed the council's rejection of an independent study which would have led to "extreme changes", with funding swings of up to 25 per cent.
Sir Stewart Sutherland, convener of Universities Scotland which represents the 21 universities and HE colleges, said it was now studying further clarification of the SHEFC plans.
THE 6 PER CENT SOLUTION
The contentious SHEFC option would see funding for the 5400 student places on initial training and accredited courses decrease from pound;29.7 million to pound;27.8 million, a 6 per cent cut.
The more swingeing cuts facing 2,200 primary BEd and 862 full-time in-service places result from the suggested slimming- down of funded subject groups from 20 to six. Teacher education is, complicatedly, spread across three of these bands. The impact on primary BEd and in-service students is worse because they are lumped in with subjects where there has been past over-recruitment, such as social work, health and welfare, catering andhospitality and creative arts.