John Brennan: Making the sober case for college investment

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The Independent Online

The Government has won its second reading for top-up fees, albeit by the tightest of margins. But some of the concessions apparently agreed may reduce the Chancellor's room for manoeuvre as he considers his options in this summer's spending review, which will decide how much money colleges have until 2008.

After months of debate on universities, I worry that the role of FE colleges may be even further from the Government's radar and the public mind than ever. So we must ensure that they hear and heed our case for investment.

It is amazing how many commentators still don't realise that there are many more 16 to 18-year-olds working for their qualifications in colleges than in schools. Or that over 40 per cent of those proceeding to higher education come from an FE college. And that more level three qualifications, including A-Levels, are awarded in colleges than in schools.

We must constantly repeat these facts. As Gordon Brown has already warned us all how tight his options are this summer, given rapid growth in government borrowing, we must equally accept that there will no blank cheques. Those of us in further education must therefore make a hard-headed and rational case for investment.

We must demonstrate how investment in skills leads to greater productivity. Higher education certainly has its place in helping to provide those skills, not least through the increasingly popular foundation degrees.

But, as a nation we cannot afford to concentrate our investment in teaching solely on those studying for degrees. As the demands for an even more highly skilled workforce intensify in the coming years, we as a nation must be as ready to invest in apprenticeships, level three and level two qualifications, and a host of tailored courses to meet the specific needs of a dynamic and changing economy.

That means being responsive to the needs of individual learners and the needs of business. Of course, nobody can expect a complex, modern and dynamic economy like ours to achieve a perfect harmony between the requirements of employers and the skills-stock available in the workforce. But, to get close demands an industry capable of generating and delivering skills, one which is every bit as dynamic and flexible as the marketplace it serves.

Many colleges have already demonstrated that combination of dynamism and flexibility. And they need the right resources to build on such strengths.

Yet when we put our case to Gordon Brown, we must be ready to accept the responsibilities that should come with requests for more money. If colleges get the funding we need, we must show that we can spend that money efficiently and wisely. That's why the Association of Colleges has fully costed the proposals we have put to the Government, and linked them to key government participation and achievement targets.

Any government has the right to ask searching questions about value-for-money. So, despite the well-publicised difficulties of some colleges, it is worth remembering that Ofsted has confirmed that more than 90 per cent of lessons given in FE are satisfactory or better. And the inspectors' findings are reflected in LSC surveys which show that over 90 per cent of learners are satisfied with their learning experience in their college.

Of course, there has to be a relentless pursuit of ever higher standards across the college sector. And this must continue. But, as we put our proposals for future college spending to ministers we must do so without spin. We must present sober and carefully costed proposals which respect the condition of the public finances as well as the national ambitions for 21st century skills. Doing so will present an unanswerable case for investment.

The writer is the chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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