Where is the FE sector heading? We are two or three weeks away from the allocation of grant in aid and yet there are still 13 colleges that have not given their staff a salary increase for last year.
They claim they cannot make an offer due to lack of funds. These colleges are not alone: most in Scotland are finding it very difficult to function within an acceptable level of operational deficit. If that is the current position, after four consecutive years of funding cuts, what will this year's reduction cause? At the moment there are five colleges locked in official industrial disputes. How many more will enter into dispute before the Government decides that intervention is needed?
Labour came into office with promises for every sector of education. To date all we have received are a few sympathetic, congratulatory speeches from the Education Minister, pound;1.3 million for pet projects, a freeze on the implementation of Higher Still, the introduction of student tuition fees and a proposed new funding methodology. How are these "initiatives" impacting on FE?
Initially Brian Wilson's sympathy and plaudits were well received, but as they have not been backed any concrete proposals morale has slumped to new depths. Look at the reality. A roughly even division of the pound;1.3 million among the colleges amounts to the equivalent to the cost of a foreign trip undertaken by many college principals. The Higher Still reprieve is to enable more preparation and development of courses and staff. They seem to have forgotten the need for additional resources, including staff.
Tuition tees will be a disaster for FE. Where the Government got its projected pound;5 million generated from fees needs further explanation. Worse, the sum has been counted as additional funding for FE this year. Will the Government make up any shortfall if the figure is not achieved, or will FE just have to "soldier on" with yet another reduction? We have still to be told if the new funding methodology will be applied this year.
What could the Government do? One possibility would be a working party consisting of all interested parties to look into the needs and workings of FE. There are various issues which it could investigate in the hope of restoring some stability.
First priority is funding. Some of the proposals in the new methodology are welcome, such as the help to prevent excessive swings (safety netting by another name). Also good is the averaging of student activity over three years.
But other proposals and omissions may restrict wider participation. There is no additional money to compensate for serving sparsely populated areas nor has any consideration been given to inner cities. The suggested removal of funding for non-recognised qualifications (NRQs) may also reduce participation. Many who return to education, especially those from deprived areas, have no entry qualifications and it is only by completing NRQ courses that they gain the confidence to progress to courses with formal qualifications.
There are numerous other points not considered which impact upon funding, such as health and safety in workshops, the constraints of floor area and equipment available in proportion to class sizes. Another issue that needs thinking through is the effect of Advanced Higher on FE. The Government does not appear to have considered the progression routes to university proposed by the Dearing and Garrick reports. The proposal is for an Advanced Higher to have equal standing to an HNC or HND, giving automatic entry into the second year of a degree course. Advanced Higher will not require a tuition fee nor will it be vocational, but a college HNC-HND is vocational and will be liable to fees. The HNC does not give automatic entry to second year of many university courses. The result could be acceleration of the "mission drift" away from the traditional FE ethos already evident in many colleges. A possible solution to this problem would be the exemption of fees for HNCs-HNDs taken in FE colleges.
What has New Labour done for FE staff? It has sat back and watched college managements attack salaries and conditions despite having stated that it wants the status of those working in education to attract and retain, the very best of teachers. Yet FE is now at the point where any more efficiency savings can only be achieved at a cost to the level of service.
If we return to a national structure then, as with day schools, there should be national terms and conditions. The local negotiation system now operating is so inefficient that the cost may outweigh any efficiency "savings". My rough estimate of the cost incurred through local negotiations, for lecturing staff only, is in the region of pound;600,000 a year. That figure does not take into account negotiations for support staff or any industrial action.
The Government could help kick-start a return to national salaries and conditions by providing additional money to fund a salary increase for all those working in the sector. It has accepted the Pay Review Body's recommendation of a 3.8 per cent rise for teachers in England and Wales. Why not do the same for FE in Scotland?
Many FE students are trying to get a third, or fourth, update of skills so as to get back into the labour market. To maintain high quality service and deliver initiatives such as Welfare to Work, there needs to be a drastic Government rethink on the direction in which FE is being driven.
* John Cassidy is a lecturer in the division of building and environmental studies at Cardonald College and president of the College Lecturers' Association. He writes in a personal capacity.