How did so many end up in hot water?

As parents and unions fight cuts in schools, Fran Abrams reports on the traumas facing further education colleges and, below, meets one principal who is putting on a brave face
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The Independent Online
Something is happening in our colleges. While attention has been focused on school cuts, no one seems to have noticed that a third of England's further education colleges are being forced to make staff redundant.

Even the most conservative observers agree that many hundreds of jobs will be lost. Some colleges are planning to lose up to a sixth of their staff, they say.

Sheffield College - the biggest in Britain, with 2,300 full and part- time staff - is looking for up to 300 voluntary redundancies. Its principal, Ken Ruddiman, says funding cuts will mean more students being taught by fewer staff. But he is not pessimistic about the future - his rhetoric displays all the bravado of England's new further education sector.

"The traditional way of teaching has always been the best, but there are others which could be just as good. Less supported staff study time, less time interfacing with the teacher, less time on information giving and more time on information handling. If that can be done in a cheaper way ... we can use talents more efficiently," he said.

There seems to have been little respite for this Cinderella sector since it was given freedom from local authority control in April, 1993. In the past two years it has been torn by a bitter battle over new contracts, which many lecturers have refused to accept. Large numbers of colleges have been hit by repeated strikes, and staff morale is said to be at an all-time low.

Traditionally the poor relation of the education system, further education rarely attracts good publicity. It makes headlines only when things go wrong, as they have done on too many occasions in recent history.

Scandals such as the ones that shook Wilmorton College, Derby, last year have not helped. Its principal and a number of governors left under a cloud after allegations, confirmed in an official report, of irregular land deals and expenses payments.

The revelation in June 1994 that 42 children attending a college creche in Scarborough had been enrolled as full-time students, qualifying for up to pounds 100,000 in funding, did not improve matters.

And when St Philip's Sixth Form College in Birmingham became a battleground after Roman Catholic governors tried to close it because they said too many students were Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, the Education Secretary was forced to order a full inquiry.

Doubts about the quality of new vocational qualifications have also affected morale. In one case a travel agent from Cumbria said he was awarded a business administration certificate without even enrolling on a course.

On top of this catalogue of disasters has come even worse news for the sector. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee was told last month that 48 colleges had a total deficit of pounds 20m, and that 22 had been asked to draw up recovery plans. MPs also heard that principals' pay had risen by an average of 11.6 per cent since incorporation, with the highest paid earning pounds 83,500. Lecturers have had pay rises of 1.5 per cent and 2.9 per cent.

Principals say that their problems are largely the result of a new national funding system. In 1993, funding per student ranged from pounds 1,900 in some areas to pounds 5,000 in others. Those who were in low-spending local authorities have benefited from greater uniformity but those who were treated relatively generously in the past have lost out.

Some have already taken tough decisions to safeguard their futures. Hinckley College in Leicestershire has approached the nearby North Warwickshire College to propose a merger. Gordon Stokes, principal of North Warwickshire, said such a move could help both colleges.

"We have made a positive decision to try to proceed this way before real trouble came for either of us through competition," he said.

These two are among the first to make such a move, but there have been predictions that others could follow. Last December the management consultants KPMG Peat Marwick said that as many as 20 per cent of the 457 existing colleges might not survive the next three years in their current form. The Further Education Funding Council is more optimistic, estimating that while a quarter of colleges could have problems in future, only 5 per cent are relatively weak at present.

The council's chief executive, Sir William Stubbs, believes that in general the sector is strong. After all, nine out of 10 colleges have built up financial surpluses totalling pounds 258m, he says.

"The sector is not just there to balance its books. It is there to deliver education. It is expanding fast, it is diversifying and it is responding to the changing requirements and demands of students for new forms of education and training," he said.

Roger Ward, chief executive of the Colleges Employers' Forum, also believes the future is bright.

"I am highly optimistic. Enormous growth has taken place. Thousands more students have been attracted into further education and that can only be good for the students and for the UK economy," he said.

There is certainly much to say about further education that is positive. The sector has grown rapidly in the past few years and many thousands of adults have returned to learning through its efforts. Attempts to impose a new structure on vocational education show, if nothing else, that it has at last realised the importance of this area. Last week even the long- running dispute over lecturers' contracts looked as though it might be coming to an end when both sides agreed to negotiate through the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), although to date no major breakthrough has emerge.

But there is still stormy weather ahead. Tony Colton, principal of Matthew Boulton College, Birmingham, and president of the Association of Principals of Colleges, told his inaugural conference last week that the next five years would be difficult ones.

"Despite our wish for stability, colleges will have to demonstrate their strengths in order to survive the period. The predatorial behaviour in the sector needs to be controlled and monitored in order that the quality of our service is not affected," he said.