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Why let Dracula out of the coffin again?

I AM often asked how I decide on the topic for this article each month. My reply is that I receive advice from a number of people. My wife, for instance, has often suggested that if I were to stop writing so much about the "boring financial stuff" I could make the columns much more interesting. She also, regularly, gives me advice on grammar, punctuation, style, etc though I have told her that this is the editor's job.

Further advice is provided by a friend who recently gave me a great anecdote involving a Scottish politician and the Scottish Qualifications Authority, but I decided that enough had been written already about the SQA in recent weeks. Some friends and colleagues marvel at how I avoid writing about industrial relations issues, while a schoolteacher friend of mine (or is that an oxymoron) suggested that I was sounding more and more like an EIS-CLA activist, banging on about the McCrone settlement and would I please write no more about it.

Some go further and say that I should make it more interesting by simply not mentioning education at all. Others - including some good friends - simply advise me to quit. So far I have successfully managed to avoid all this good advice. This month is no exception, for how could I write about anything other than the topic that has been in the thoughts of everyone since the return from the Easter holidays - the new recurrent funding allocation for colleges for 2001-2002.

There are good things in the package overall. Growth for a start - pound;46 million above the equivalent figure for the current academic year, or a 12.5 per cent increase in cash terms. For this the sector will be expected to deliver 108,000 weighted SUMs (student units of measurement). The money includes significant extra money for student support through bursaries and fee waivers and for the socially excluded and disadvantaged. Outwith the main grant-in-aid funding there are additonal allocations for investment in infrastructure and ICT and staff development.

Inevitably there are parts of the package which have been less pleasing. The basic price of the weighted SUM has been increased by only 1.5 per cent. The explanation for this is based on the rate of inflation - 2.5 per cent minus a 1 per cent efficiency saving. Thus the dreaded efficiency saving makes a comeback, a bit like Dracula in the old Hammer horror films. You think they won't have the nerve to bring him back from the grave for another film but they do. The reason it is there is as a balancing item because there is insufficient money to fund all the extra weighted SUMs required by the Government. So the gap has to be bridged by some device - in this case the efficiency saving.

The Association of Scottish Colleges has termed this a payroll cut because it denies colleges the same opportunity to reward staff as universities and schools. This seems to be the issue that annoys principals most. Given the number of ring-fenced sums of money, for ICT, or staff development, it has particularly upset the ones I talked to that there is no pot of money for salaries.

So, is it good or bad? The sector is still characterised by volatility and wide disparities in outcomes and four colleges will still receive transitional relief, though only at half the level of last year. If the model is more predictable, the jury is still out on its transparency and simplicity - still foggy was the verdict of one principal.

An opportunity has been missed of allowing colleges to give a decent salary increase. The sector despite all the new money is still underfunded for the level of activity expected of it. Sadly the inclusion of an efficiency gain is an attempt to square this underfunding circle. Go figure.

Norman Williamson is principal of Coatbridge College and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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