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Will Blair take it further?

The quango which controls Pounds 2.5 billion spending a year on further education will escape the axe if Labour wins the next general election.

But the powers of the Further Education Funding Council will be devolved to regional councils with wider community representation including local education authorities, industry and the universities.

It is also likely that the funding of universities and colleges will be kept separate, with support for a coherent FE sector and increased emphasis on technician training.

School reforms announced last week by Tony Blair and David Blunkett fuelled frustrations among FE leaders, who say new questions had been raised about the fate of the sector without answering existing ones on funding, the future of colleges and their links with schools and universities.

Principals were irritated that the first political statement about the future college curriculum came from Tony Blair in his speech on schools at London University Institute of Education last week, while the detailed paper on the sector under Labour will not be published until November.

New powers for schools and LEAs and the abolition of the Funding Agency for Schools also have far-reaching implications for colleges. One principal commented: "If there is a snap election tomorrow, Labour would be dead in the water on FE policies."

Ruth Gee, chief executive of the Association for Colleges, said: "It is important that Labour comes clean on its policy for FE and does not see it as merely a bridge from school to university."

Bryan Davies, Labour's FHE spokesman, moved to reassure colleges, particularly on funding. "The fact that the FAS will go reduces quangos by one and makes it less complicated," he said. "We will be looking for ways in which we can make the FEFC more accountable. We see a strong argument for post-16 provision having a regional base and are looking to the FEFC to provide it."

But Ms Gee warned against any return to the old regional advisory councils, "politically controlled bodies which were planning authorities trading hairdressing in one college for motor mechanics in another". The AFC has produced A Manifesto for Further Education as an agenda-setter aimed at all political parties. It has 50 recommendations on funding, governance and student support, including a call for everyone over 19 to be entitled to at least three years' publicly-funded full-time education and training.

Consultations showed that college staff at all levels see FE as a sector in its own right and not just a bridge from school to university. They criticised the narrowness of the Dearing Review focusing on a 16-19 curriculum rather than lifetime learning.

While there were reservations about the FEFC, they did not necessarily want it abolished. There were also calls for a common funding formula post-16.

Much of this chimes with Labour thinking. Mr Davies has signalled Labour's commitment to access for all, equity of funding and student support, reform of discretionary awards and student loans, and the possibility of a "learning bank" - a learning entitlement financed by students and employers - as proposed by the late John Smith's Social Justice Commission.

With much of the detail of Labour's autumn consultation paper on FHE in place, there are still two vexed questions about the relationships of colleges with universities and with the Training and Enterprise Councils.

The likely solution to the first question appears to be a hybrid structure. In the same way that universities now get funds from the research councils and the Higher Education Funding Council, colleges could be part-funded through HE and partly through the regional arrangements.

In his speech last week, Tony Blair spoke of "a coherent 14-19 system of education and training provision, taking pupils from teenage to a range of opportunities in college and in work".

He is understood to have grave doubts about a clear divide at 16-plus with one FHE sector. On the question of links among colleges, TECs and the wider world of training, an internal party memorandum on the options available will be put to David Blunkett and employment spokeswoman Harriet Harman in advance of the November FHE consultation paper.

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