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You must swallow the bitter pill;FE Focus

"Further education is central to the learning age," said David Blunkett. I agree. But the under-valued, under-funded FE sector has first to come out from the shadows of its more popular cousins, schools and universities.

To take centre-stage, the sector needs more cash, a stronger voice, a new curriculum and stronger local community links.

It is hardly surprising that 27 per cent of colleges are judged "financially weak" when, in 1997 the 357 colleges educated more than 3 million students, twice those in 1990, with 34 per cent less in funds. No wonder the Further Education Funding Council told the Commons employment and education select committee it is concerned that "future intentions are seriously at risk".

A simple interpretation is: "Without more cash we can't do the present job, let alone meet the Kennedy aspiration of widening access".

There must also be fairer funding between colleges and among the different post-16 providers. Converging the funding levels between colleges might be a bitter pill for some, but they would benefit from ending disparities among different types of provider.

Colleges also need a stronger, coherent voice. With the recent turbulent times behind them, unions and employers can look forward to calmer times. But they must work together to address the many problems such as those created by excessive use of part-time agency staff.

The curriculum is hopelessly outdated. We must move from qualifications-based offerings. We need a framework of "units" encompassing all post-14 education and training, a flexible approach in which students can mix and match courses from various institutions.

Such credit accumulation and transfer would encourage colleges to develop open and distance learning and break competitive barriers between colleges, schools and HE. Plans for colleges to become more involved in post-14 progression, to boost staying-on rates post-16 and encourage HE uptake illustrate the need for closer collaboration.

The greatest problem of incorporation is the loss of local community links. It must be rectified for sensible strategic planning. Eventually, strategic planning must rest with regional government. Until then, many of the funding and policy powers of the FEFC should be passed to its nine regional committees, with TECs identifying each region's skill shortages and labour market needs.

Hard lessons were learned from incorporation and many mistakes were made, but FE colleges now can have every reason for optimism.

Don Foster is the Liberal Democrateducation spokesman

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