What the Soviets did to the Finns

17th September 2004 at 01:00
Years ago when I was working at the United Nations headquarters in New York, my Finnish colleagues told stories about the economic oppression they suffered at the hands of their Soviet neighbours. One of these tales started to haunt me recently.

One year, the Russians told the Finns that they needed shirts, and placed an order for 500,000. The delighted Finns built a factory, trained the staff, brought in the equipment and materials and produced the shirts.

Well, you've guessed it - that was the first and last order they were given. Does this strike a chord in some colleges? Well, perhaps just a tiny echo, certainly for colleges in west London who enthusiastically expanded student numbers in line with government strategy last year, but who have now been told to cut back drastically.

I am sure that to ministers this must seem most ungrateful. After all, the sector has received additional funds this year. But this money was allocated to improve lecturers' salaries, quality of teaching and leadership, and, in London, to recognise higher costs.

Last year, adult basic skills were a priority - expand to meet demand, we were told. So we did, recruiting more teachers and taking on several hundred additional part-time adults, mainly refugees and asylum-seekers.

But that was last year. It is hugely disappointing that our contract for this year funds 500 fewer adults than we enrolled last year. It will fund 44 fewer full-time equivalent adults than our original contract for last year. How can we meet local and national targets if our contract is for fewer students each year?

Like many, our college has responded enthusiastically to calls to develop pre-16 vocational programmes. Our new skills centre in Feltham was inspired by two local headteachers who saw the importance of vocational opportunities for their pupils. It's a successful partnership between the borough, the British Airports Authority, the local learning and skills council and the college. But now we simply don't know whether there will be funds for the programme beyond this year. This makes planning difficult and worries our partner schools.

This year, the LSC's priority is 16-18 expansion. That should be fine, but we are told that we can only expand for 16 to 18-year-olds at the expense of adult learners. Just to remind you what an adult learner is: someone who is 19 or over. Now by foolishly going ahead with the expansion of 16 to 18s, especially those who come to us at 16 or 17 with very few qualifications, we have created groups of students who have become 19 and are no longer a priority.

It is disappointing that the delicate balance of resources in colleges such as ours is not understood. Our provision is highly vocational, with more than 50 per cent taking place in expensive specialist facilities. Ensuring that we offer progression routes in all our specialisms sometimes means that we have only one group at a particular level. Viability is often sustained by a mix of 16 to 18 and 19 to 20-year-olds. By reducing the numbers of students aged 19-plus, the viability of whole areas of specialist provision is jeopardised.

Don't despair, we were told last year when we got the bad news about funding, work-based learning is the new area for expansion! Well, that's all right, we thought. For months, at the encouragement of our local LSC, we planned to expand our apprenticeship and Entry to Employment programmes.

We invested in facilities and equipment, recruited new staff and trained workplace assessors. Then late in July, we learned that there would be no expansion of our apprenticeship programme and that the funded numbers on Entry to Employment would be under half the number we were told to plan for. By next week we anticipate long waiting lists of needy young people referred by Connexions who will have months to wait to join the programme.

And then there's the one about the Government's higher education target - 50 per cent of 18 to 30s to have benefited from HE by the year 2010. Yet another target which we welcomed. But, with the limitations on adult funding, how will we be able to contribute?

At the mercy of hastily-set priorities and reduced learning opportunities future planning with our governing body will be quite a challenge this year!

Thalia Marriott is principal and chief executive of West Thames college, Hounslow, west London

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