The Dearing and Garrick reports present a formidable task for quick reading and speedy appraisal. Interested parties have until only September 30 to find and respond to those of the 122 recommendations addressed to them. Here are some of the plums - and plum stones - which further education colleges might pull out of the 1,700 pages. The committees are anxious that their proposals should be treated as a series of linked measures. So many review committees tell us that their conclusions should be digested as a whole and not plum or cherrypicked. The last one I recall doing so was the Howie committee. Unfortunately the Government tends to have ideas of its own.
Much of what is best for FE in Scotland is in the Dearing pie. Early relaxation of capping, resumption of full-time expansion and (at last) recognition of the need for substantial investment in IT equipment and materials in colleges. The massive contribution made by colleges to overall expansion, wider participation and more efficient delivery is recognised mainly, Sir Ron Garrick tells us, on the experience of Scotland.
The FE route provides the first experience of HE for about 40 per cent of Scottish new entrants and for a much higher proportion of mature and part-time students in colleges than in universities. The story would have looked even better had the committees had access to data later than 1994-95 since part-time higher education numbers in colleges have grown more sharply.
The committees were right to recommend that much of the future expansion should be in colleges. The main shortfall in Scotland is in intermediate rather than degree qualifications. Additional funding should favour a first chance for big battalions rather than extended specialisation for the few.
Renewed expansion and lifting the cap on HE numbers in colleges "immediately" will be very welcome, but what is the price? Dearing proposes that there should be no further growth in degree provision in FE colleges, though the Garrick report is rather cryptic about whether the University of the Highlands and Islands project is justified or affordable.There is very little in the package to favour part-time modes of study. What is to happen to nurse education (newly absorbed into mainstream HE) and the Open University in Scotland?
A more serious obstacle is affordability. There is some reassurance in the Government's pre-emptive response. The statement by Brian Wilson, the Scottish Office minister, acknowledges that "the proportion of national income going into further and higher education will need to rise if this country is to remain economically competitive". Amen to that, but the planning figures to make this a reality are elusive. The spending plans released (published would be too strong a word) by the previous Government planned around #163;1.1 billion for student awards and grants to HE institutions and FE colleges in 1997-98 and the next two years. More than #163;160 million has to be earned from selling the student loan debt to the private sector to keep down to this figure for 1997-98. It is far from clear, however, whether similar amounts can be conjured for 1998-99 and 1999-2000. Dearing proposes the trick of excluding loans from public expenditure. Fine, if it works. If not, there will be additional costs starting in 1998 which will be offset only some years later by student repayments.
The Government has promised a "fundamental review" of the previous expenditure plans but only with a view to plans for several years ahead. If student contributions are to start in 1998, a very searching look at the figures will have to start now.
And so to the other passfail question of "who pays" for tuition. This was the greasy ball the political parties agreed to kick off the park and into the long grass until after the general election. Hardly had the ink dried on the carefully researched options and final recommendation of Dearing before the Government revealed its own very different model. Ministers and the committees agree that full-time students should be required to contribute #163;1,000 per full year of HE to tuition costs irrespective of venue or course. Can it really be equitable to ask students to pay the same amount regardless of the percentage contribution this represents?
The figure of #163;1,000 is said to represent about a quarter of the overall cost of tuition. In fact, #163;1,000 represents almost 40 per cent of the cost to public funds (fee plus grant) of some HNCs or HNDs in colleges but as little as 20 per cent of the cost of a year's tuition for some courses fully funded by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council in an HEI.
What other ingredients can we find in the new recipe Dearing and Garrick propose for HE? There is the usual adjustment of terminology. For example, the contributions and benefits for various stakeholders are described as a "compact", avoiding the term "contract" (as social contracts are now out of fashion), or "covenant" (which would have admitted the Scottish influence much too explicitly). FE will support enthusiastically the committees' endorsement of an integrated national framework linking different levels of academic and vocational qualifications and providing new routes of access and progression. The committees tell us that the new framework is "not a ladder" but could not quite bring themselves to use the "climbing frame" tag now favoured in education conference-speak. Scotland is well down the road of developing a credit transfer mechanism towards a truly national framework of all post-school qualifications including Higher Still and Scottish Vocational Qualifications.
Interestingly the Garrick committee diagram does not show National Certificates, or the SVQ level equivalencies to the eight points on the Dearing H scale. Perhaps more evidence should have been taken from the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the Scottish Advisory Committee on Credit and Access to get this right.
The committee has come down firmly in favour of a funding council for FE in Scotland. This is hardly surprising. The years of direct Scottish Office funding have seen great sensitivity in detail but neglect of strategy and purpose. Colleges are nervous on this issue. Some fear that FE would lose its identity. On the other hand, it would tidy up lines of demarcation if all degree provision was funded by the SHEFC. The bigger problem for FE is that Dearing and Garrick are only part of a much longer policy menu. Much of what they propose will make practical sense only when the Government sets it in the context of the strategic framework for FE which was promised in the election manifesto.
The Helena Kennedy report on access has breathed new life into the debate about relative neglect of FE. Any new arrangements for student support will need to take into account the New Deal (Welfare to Work) for the long-term unemployed, Target 2000 for school-leavers going into training, and bursaries for full-time study at non-advanced level.
FE will not cavil at the immense efforts both committees have made to refocus strategy for the next 20 years. There are many interesting ideas to explore. For example, the proposed Institute for Learning and Teaching. The main task, however, is to close the funding gap before it closes the prospects for new generations of students.
Next week: Lindsay Paterson on the interface between school and higher education.
Tom Kelly is chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges.