Smart money matters

7th September 2007 at 01:00
The Government must put its money where it can do most good and colleges argue that it is in the FE sector

SCOTLAND'S COLLEGE leaders want to see growth for the sector emerging from the Government's spending review.

This is the unsurprising message from the submission by the Asso-ciation of Scotland's Colleges to the review being undertaken by ministers, which awaited MSPs as they returned to their parliamentary desks this week.

The blueprint, Building a Better Scotland, taps into the SNP's man-tra of creating a "wealthier and smarter Scotland". The association believes colleges can contribute by enrolling 4,000 students in each year of the spending review from 2008-11. The proposals come with a sizeable price tag, but Howard McKenzie, the ASC's acting chief executive, says they are "affordable".

The association estimates the increased costs of FE spending will be pound;213 million over the three years, to support teaching and to take 18,000 higher education students in the colleges out of debt. In addition, it wants to see capital spending of pound;150 million a year until the backlog of work to improve college property and equipment is cleared.

Mr McKenzie, who is also principal of Jewel and Esk Valley College, hailed the plans as "a well-argued case for increasing investment in Scotland's colleges so that they can cater for more students to deliver a highly-skilled workforce that ultimately creates the wealthier and smarter Scotland we all want".

The ASC wants the Government to put its money where it believes it can do most good: a study for the Review of Scotland's Colleges estimated that, for every pound;1 invested in the college sector, there was an economic return of at least pound;3.20.

Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Life-long Learning, has accepted publicly that this is a conservative assumption, reflecting the economic yield due to higher earnings from higher qualifications.

The colleges hope they can press all the right political buttons, basing a large part of their case on their ability to bring about social cohesion and eco- nomic effectiveness.

The submission points out, for example, that a quarter of FE students come from the most deprived pockets of Scotland and that colleges are key providers of English for speakers of other languages. Funding the FE sector to step up its work with vulnerable groups makes economic sense, the ASC states.

It also underlines the importance of colleges in contributing to the Scottish skills strategy, which Ms Hyslop will unveil next week as Scotland's response to the UK skills review carried out by Lord Leitch.

But the association suggests the skills strategy will require investment in FE in a range of ways, such as increasing access to higher education by removing debt from Higher National students through the use of college bursaries, giving smaller employers incentives to train by creating all-age business bursaries, putting colleges in the driving seat on adult literacy and numeracy, and giving colleges responsibility for adult careers advice.

The ASC goes on to argue that, as well as the costs of serving the world at large, it requires increased investment in colleges to meet their costs arising from inflation, higher pension contributions from employers, council tax, rises in utility bills and equalities legislation.

The colleges make the point that if the considerable efforts put in to make them financially secure are to have lasting success, they need to be on a surer financial footing, which they define as annual funding increases of the rise in inflation plus 3 per cent. At present, the colleges as a whole have an underlying oper-ating surplus of only 1 per cent of turnover.

Wise investment

The colleges' case for added investment will not have been harmed by the publication this week of the annual indicators on student and staff performance in FE. The figures show that 86 per cent of college students completed their entire programme in 2005-06, of whom 80 per cent gained their award or went on to the next year of study; 92 per cent of students were satisfied with the quality of their learning; and 89 per cent of lecturers have a teaching qualification.

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