Differences over contracts aside, there is a marked similarity between the political hopes of managers and the rank and file. Ben Russell reports
Colleges are putting up a unified face to policy-makers over the future of further education as Britain lines up for the General Election.
Management groups are coming together with a remarkable display of common ground across the further education sector.
The Association of Colleges, Association of College Management and Association of Principals of Colleges all advocate a steady-as-she-goes formula of budget stability, college freedom and a greater emphasis on FE as the engine of economic regeneration and training.
But there is a more strident agenda from the rank and file. While the moderate Association of Teachers and Lecturers concentrates on calls for a co-ordinated national plan of investment in colleges, lecturers' union NATFHE wants a virtual return to pre-incorporation days.
The TES surveyed opinion of key management groups and unions for their manifesto demands.
The union's pre-election policy statement calls for a reversal of efficiency cuts to bring Pounds 1.9 billion into FE, with a return to national pay bargaining, an end to the marketplace in education, and reform of the Further Education Funding Council and college governing bodies.
But despite the clear differences over contracts and the government of the sector, there is unity over the move to streamline qualifications and awarding bodies, and calls to increase student support and reform benefit rules. And the coherent push towards a recognition of colleges' work and their role in bolstering the economy represents a hitherto unseen unity across the sector.
That, coming close on the highly co-ordinated campaign against cuts in expansion cash, will be vital as colleges leaders lobby for a slice of the policy action during the incoming government's first 100 days.
College leaders feel the storm of protest over threats to axe demand-led funding has given them muscle which may influence the new management at the Department for Education and Employment.
They cannot shake off the feeling that the idea of widespread investment in further education is nothing more than a pipedream, but there is a determination to raise the profile of FE.
John Brennan, Association of Colleges policy director, said: "When we see the colour of their eyes we shall be in there with a list."
Ray Dowd, president of the Association of College Management, said: "Further education has traditionally had a very low profile, possibly because people do not understand it.
"Politicians go for things which they believe are vote-catchers. Universities and schools tend to get a much higher profile.
"But I think the sector has come of age and it's the first time there has been a unified voice making sure the investment is made in colleges."
Ben Bennett, chairman of the Association of Principals of Colleges, reflected the general lack of optimism that an incoming government would invest heavily in further education. And he called for a loosening of the ties which bind colleges to the Further Education Funding Council, to free principals to seek private sector funding.
Other top priorities are changes to the benefits system to allow more unemployed people into FE and a more generous student support system further to open colleges to new entrants.
Mr Bennett said: "The sector feels that the estimates the DFEE has done on funding schools, colleges and training and enterprise councils are not accurate, and colleges are the best value for money and are worth additional investment.
"We would look for stability - just as schools have had huge changes over the last four years and want stability, so we would like time to build partnerships."
WHAT THE COLLEGE MANAGERS WANT:
* More money. All three management groups would like to see increases in funding, but accept they are unlikely to get it. Even at the height of the expansion cash row the AOC was accepting the Treasury's blank cheque would not last for ever.
* Stability. Principals are still fuming after having to tear up their forward plans because of the recent funding row. They want a stable long term commitment to funding, and a stable policy base on which to build.
* Freedom. Colleges resist any move to put them back under local authority control, wanting instead a greater role in economic development and training plans.
* More co-operation. There are calls for college co-operation to have a greater role, perhaps with regional groups to bring colleges, training and enterprise councils and local authorities together to discuss planning.
* Student grants. Principals are unanimous in their calls for reform of student support, to help the disadvantaged gain a place on courses.
* Benefit reform. Colleges want the 16-hour rule changed so students can work towards qualifications without having their benefits cut.
* Curriculum reform. There is widespread pressure for a simplified course structure and a rationalisation of awarding bodies.
* Prestige. Absolutely central to the college platform is the colleges' desire to be acknowledged as a central part of British life, and recognised as the engines of lifetime learning and a training revolution.
What NATFHE wants:
* Pounds 1.9 billion. NATFHE leaders say student numbers in FE colleges have more than doubled since 1990 yet funding has been cut by 34 per cent. They want to be funded for the students they teach. They are also bidding for Pounds 2 billion more for higher education.
* The union is pressing for national pay and conditions bargaining, with full rights for part timers and a proper pension to ensure a "high quality professional workforce."
* No quangos. The FEFC must be reformed, says NATFHE, with trade union and local authority representation. College governing bodies must also get council, union and local business representation.
* Grants reform. A new system of student grants, which is linked to study rather than qualifications, and a new drive towards equal opportunities.
* Curriculum change. A streamlined curriculum, and qualifications which recognise all achievements, continuing assessment and a system of credits. There should also be an end to youngsters specialising too early, NATFHE says.
* Adult education. Local authorities should have to provide adult education by law. Education for prisoners should be a right.
Next week: Internet survey of the training and enterprise councils' wish list