Thanks for free tuition; now give us the funds

What do college principals make of the Government's proposed reforms? Neil Merrick hears their views

By accepting most of Sir Andrew Foster's blueprint for further education in its White Paper, the Government more or less guaranteed itself a favourable response from further education colleges.

But the most popular measure announced by ministers - free education for 19- to 25-year-olds without A-levels - did not emerge from last year's Foster review. Instead, it was pressure from college principals that persuaded the Department for Education and Skills to extend free tuition (currently available for learners trying to gain their first GCSEs) to those studying for level 3 qualifications.

Pat Bacon, principal of St Helens College, was among a group that lobbied Bill Rammell, the minister for higher education and lifelong learning, when the Government launched its adult fees policy last autumn.

Bacon has concerns about how the level 3 entitlement will be funded, but she is pleased that more adults will get another chance. "There are still a lot of people in this area who don't progress at 16 and still have some way to go," she says.

The DfES is promising £25m from 2007/08 to compensate colleges for lost fees. But the College of North West London says it already loses out because it no longer charges students on level 2 programmes.

According to principal Vicki Fagg, many fees are paid not by individuals, but by employers. By extending free tuition at a time when colleges are under pressure to raise fee income, the Government risks creating confusion. "We are anxious about the mixed messages going out to employers," Fagg says.

As a sixth-form college, Peter Symonds College in Winchester is less likely to enrol adults on full-time A-level programmes. But the principal, Neil Hopkins, hopes that fees will be waived for higher education access courses, which cost about £1,000 a year.

Hopkins also welcomes plans to give sixth-form colleges the opportunity to become centres of excellence without needing to demonstrate expertise in a particular vocational subject, in the same way as larger FE colleges.

Some large colleges are centres of vocational excellence (CoVE ) in as many as five subjects. "We have had great difficulty achieving CoVE status, because it's a relatively small part of our business," Hopkins says. "Whenever we tried to go for it, we were told to mind our own business."

Individual learner accounts, scrapped in 2001 after allegations of fraud, are to be piloted again. Ioan Morgan, principal of Warwickshire College, says many colleges saw higher enrolments last time. "They were a good idea that was poorly implemented. Once there is tighter control and better administration, it will be successful."

Morgan, part of a principals' group consulted by ministers before the White Paper, believes the package of measures should enhance the reputation of FE. "We have been given a defined focus, which is skills for employment," he says.

But, like other principals, he is concerned at the impact of higher fees for adult courses that fall outside the Government's priorities. These are already rising and will virtually double by 2010, when learners will be expected to pay half the cost of tuition. "We have to stick in with our community," Morgan says. Pat Bacon says it is ironic that, after community-based learning was celebrated in the Foster report, adult courses in St Helens and elsewhere are being cut. "We don't want finance to be a barrier to learning," she adds.

An extra £11m is to be spent on training for lecturers and other staff, who will participate in exchanges with experts from various industry sectors. Ian Pryce, principal of Bedford College and a qualified accountant, says: "I'm a big advocate of bringing people in from outside the sector."

But Pryce believes the jury is still out on the Government's latest quango, the Quality Improvement Agency, which was launched yesterday to raise standards and deliver the DfES's quality improvement strategy. "Self-regulation is about taking responsibility for your own quality," he says.

There is also a feeling that it was unnecessary to give the Learning and Skills Council powers to replace college principals and governors with alternative managers, including private firms, when Ofsted says just 2 per cent of colleges are inadequate. "The proportion of colleges that are failing is minute," says Vicki Fagg. "I'm doubtful that the introduction of private providers will necessarily lead to better quality."

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