Further education is not a happy sector this week. Though its difficulties have been obscured of late by the turmoil in the schools over budgets, now that local councils are setting their own it becomes clear that many are balancing the books at the expense of the colleges. And meanwhile the colleges face industrial action from next Monday over their own stalled contracts talks.
Incorporation in l993 gave them independence, but failed to insulate them from the knock-on effects of local spending policies. Cuts at local level always hit non-statutory areas, and this year the county councils in particular (page 1) have targeted discretionary grants, adult education and travel subsidies, while continuing to expand nursery education.
Economies in discretionary spending is exactly what Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, has been advocating in the war of nerves over teacher pay and redundancies, but it points up the contradictions in the Government's spending squeeze. Chosen as the favoured vehicle for boosting staying-on rates and reaching national training targets, the FE sector was given increased funding dependant on it also hitting recruitment targets.
As our Further Education Update magazine this week records, the required expansion is not easy, and it is in the crucial areas of adult education and access courses that the new round of cuts will be most damaging. And although the FE Funding Council has promised that colleges will not be penalised financially for missing recruitment targets through such circumstances, that will do little to help strategic planning, the viability of courses, or the prospects of students forced to miss their chances. As this week's Child Poverty Action Group report finds (page 4), poor staying-on rates are still stubbornly linked to social disadvantage.
Neither college managers nor their staffs are helped to adjust to a changing, chancy future by the current industrial impasse. The leaders of the lecturers' union, NATFHE, command very little confidence among the troops. And for their part, college principals and governors grow increasingly restive at the failure of the Colleges' Employers' Forum, the body set up expressly for the purpose, to make effective progress on a national agreement on pay and conditions.
Exacerbating their concern is the growing appetite of the CEF, under its chief executive, Roger Ward, to diversify into commercial enterprises, as well as taking a divergent line in areas where the Association for Colleges was set up to represent the sector.
Now the AFC's chief executive, Ruth Gee, has cut through the growing confusion over who speaks for the colleges with a report to her council which sets out several options for action (page 3), from creating a new single organisation to muddling through with the status quo. Roger Ward also favours merger, but on his own terms, rather than through open debate.
With everyone's bluff called, it will be enlightening to see whether, or when, the college leaders - most of them members of both organisations - will be prepared to take decisive action. There is no doubt that Ms Gee is right in believing that it has never been more important for the college sector to speak with one voice, if it is to consolidate its place alongside school and university sectors.