Funding has failed to keep pace with the increasingly sophisticated role of college libraries, says Francis Beckett. Demands on further education college libraries are much greater than they were even five years ago, but their funding has not increased to match. The result could be a learning bottleneck, librarians say.
Colleges teach more students - 8 per cent a year more right now, by Government decree. They also teach to a higher level. A library designed for traditional college students can find itself struggling to cope with the demands of students on a franchised degree course. And it is expected to play a much more active role in the learning process. More learning has to be done in libraries, because lower staff-student ratios mean less contact time. Libraries now stock videos, cassettes, computers and CD-Roms as well as books. No wonder many college libraries have re-christened themselves learning resource centres.
The most fundamental of these changes is the new role. College librarians now find themselves explaining to students the process of researching information. They are, in effect, doing much of the teaching. The trend for the future is to have tutors based in libraries who can provide the level of support students now need.
But few colleges can afford this yet. The move towards a less favourable staff-student ratio is often seen as a means of educating people more cheaply. In fact, say librarians, it is a better way of educating - but not a cheaper way. Like care in the community, it is a disaster if treated as a cheap option.
But the modern library is often expected to be as cheap to run as the old sort. Further Education Funding Council chief inspector Terry Melia says in his annual report: "Many are too small for the number of enrolled students, have insufficient study spaces and an inadequate or outdated book stock. Up-grading library facilities is a priority for many college managers."
But the FEFC does not yet know the full extent of the problem. When it inspects colleges, it includes libraries and learning resources under equipment resources - so it is put together with science equipment, IT provision and the rest. An inadequate library may not show up in the report because its failings are masked by the other equipment provision. And the FEFC has not conducted a full national survey of FE libraries. While public libraries and libraries in higher education have had a major review to try to ensure that they are ready to face the 21st century, FE has not. One result is that, while higher education libraries and public libraries are already working on connecting themselves to the information superhighway, this is rare in FE.
The Library Association has asked the FEFC to conduct such a survey. It talks of its "dismay" at the levels of provision, calling them "disturbing in the light of educational trends towards greater emphasis upon project and individual enquiry work, more student-centred learning, and the desire expressed by governments for greater participation rates in further and higher education".
Library Association chief executive Ross Shimmon says: "Our surveys of college library provision have provided evidence of low standards, but there has been a lack of will to do anything about it." Mr Shimmon wants the Association for Colleges (AFC) - the FE colleges' own source of support and advice - to discuss a strategy for library provision.
The AFC supports the call for a survey. Chief executive Ruth Gee says: "We know that libraries are under-resourced. A review would help us to clarify the position. It is not just about books any more - libraries are a key part of the learning environment which colleges need to provide."
Meanwhile the Library Association is looking at the problem itself. Its last survey of library provision in FE took place in 1992, before colleges were cut loose from local authority control. Even then, it found that the levels of provision in many FE colleges was below recommendations made as long ago as 1982. It also complains that the adequacy of the library and learning resources available is not a high priority when decisions are taken on franchises, and suggests that the FEFC should look at this centrally, instead of leaving it to the franchising university.
Average expenditure on libraries in 1991, it found, was Pounds 19,850. Small colleges, with less than 2,500 full time equivalent students, were spending Pounds 11.50 a head on the library and large colleges Pounds 9.60. These figures ought to be Pounds 17 and Pounds 14 respectively, says the Library Association.
The FEFC is considering a survey. But it does not allocate money to specific parts of colleges. Each college is responsible for its own policy. This works when colleges see their libraries as a priority for spending. But not all of them do so, says Jeff Cooper, learning resources manager at Blackburn College and also chairman of COLRIC - the Council for Learning Resources in Colleges.
COLRIC was set up in 1993 to contribute to the maintenance and improvement of the quality of libraries and learning services in further education. It has set up a self-help group and its members advise each other. Membership is open to all further education colleges, including sixth form colleges, and about half are members.
LISU (Library and Information Statistics Unit at Loughborough University) has found that further education colleges spend less per head on books and periodicals than universities, and buy less expensive items. Yet if you include part-time day and evening students in the college population, FE colleges have more than twice the potential library users as higher education - 3.5 million potential users as opposed to 1.7 million. College libraries have failed to keep pace with the growth in student numbers, the inflation in the costs of printed materials and the added opportunities and costs of information technology.