Welsh lobby rises up over cash crisis

Ian Nash and Michael Prestage report as Gwent's job losses become an election issue. Gwent Tertiary College is set to become a thorn in the flesh of the Tories who are desperate to find some glimmer of hope for electoral success in Wales on May 1.

The largest FE college in Wales has announced the loss of 69 management posts in a massive staff restructuring exercise to help cope with severe cash difficulties. Budget problems have been made worse by draconian spending cuts on four fronts: FE budgets, training cash, European funds and local authority grants.

The chair of governors, Stuart Smith, was among the representatives of 19 Welsh FE college governing bodies (out of 26) who took the unprecedented step of asking Welsh Secretary William Hague to reconsider the funding settlement for colleges over the next three years.

Mr Smith said: "We are being asked to make cumulative savings of 23 per cent over the next three years while increasing student numbers and investment, as well as funding lecturers' pay increases. It's simply impossible."

Former education minister and Tory defector Alan Howarth is fighting Newport for Labour in the heartland of Gwent's catchment area.

Local Tories have struggled to back the Welsh Secretary. But one senior source said: "This is another disaster. These colleges were meant to be a flagship of successful policies. I don't think Ministers in London have any idea of the feelings for further and adult education in Wales."

Gwent College, which operates on seven sites throughout the county, has a predicted budget for 1996-97 of more than Pounds 37 million and 34,500 students including nearly 4,300 on community education projects.

Principal Sue Parker said: "What mustn't be forgotten is that education is a people business. We are not dealing with commodities. There were undoubtedly savings to be made but we are now on the edge. Ultimately, the quality of what we are doing will suffer."

She said other colleges in Wales faced similar problems, but the size of Gwent College meant funding cuts and remedial action showed up more starkly. "I am seeing colleagues suffering who have an enormous amount to offer to this institution."

Measures to tackle the financial problem include, as well as the management restructuring, selling a piece of land the college has little use for. Any spending other than on salaries is being scrutinised.

Ms Parker said: "The key thing is that we do not want to affect teaching. We are not removing any area of the curriculum. Basically, we are expecting staff to do more."

Gwent's problems do not end there. As well as the cut in its Government grant, the college faces reductions in two other major areas of funding. The local training and enterprise council is reducing the number of training weeks it pays for, though the exact effect is still difficult to predict.

Also, a change in the European Commission priorities for its grants means some projects with the local community and local industry will be reduced. The college is expecting a cut of Pounds 1.8m.

Meanwhile, the five local education authorities within Gwent with which the college deals have their own financial problems and are seeking savings on grants, awards and student transport.

Ms Parker said: "This is not the first year of cuts and the problem is the cumulative effect. We are trying to make savings as seamless as possible so that students will not notice any difference. As to the future - I'm not holding my breath for a better deal."

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