Committee accuse Minister of ‘ramshackle’ approach to funding

Committee accuse Minister of ‘ramshackle’ approach to funding

FE Week held an evidence gathering session at the House of Commons on Tuesday to allow college principals, agency officials and front and back bench MPs to discuss the Government’s most recent policy U-turn.

The ‘clarification’, which covers all 19+ Skills Funding Agency funded learners, including those seeking fully funded English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) courses, has caused widespread confusion for further education (FE) providers during enrolment. The session was an opportunity to discuss the impact of the sudden changes and what could be done to improve funding regulation in the future.

It’s ridiculous that people don’t know if they are charging for fee remittance or not. We need to get some clarity on the situation.”

Many speakers argued that the Government announcement was ‘dripped out’ and inconsistant. The clarification, which was released discreetly on the Skills Funding Agency website in August, was poorly publicised and left many FE colleges confused going into the peak enrolment period.

Heidi Alexander, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: It’s ridiculous that people don’t know if they are charging for fee remittance or not. “We need to get some clarity on the situation.”

Although the government U-turn has been welcomed by most FE colleges, some of the witnesses at the session emphasised that the ‘rescue’ of ESOL courses could be short lived.

Sue Rimmer OBE, Principal and Chief Executive of South Thames College said: “We need to know what’s happening next year.”

Dan Taubman, Senior National Education Official for Further Education and Lifelong Learning and lso involved with the Action for ESOL campaign added: “Nobody knows what the financial situation will be next year. “We have only won the battle, we haven’t won the war.”

Much of the discourse fell back to the issue of clarity within the funding policy. Stephen Hewitt, Strategic Funding, Information and Enrolment Manager at Morley College said: “There are lots of things that we are not quite sure about. “It’s the most ramshackle thing that I’ve had to work with in the last 15 years in the sector.

“Saying it will be all okay is something I find very hard to believe.”

As an example Susie Kusnierz, Head of ESOL at Lewisham College, added that although the situation with course fees had been remedied, there was no clarification on how the policy would affect other learner costs, such as examination fees.

Both clarity and flexibility are needed to develop successful Esol courses. During the session many of the speakers seemed to be at odds with one another about which ideal should be prioritised in the future.

Sue Rimmer argued that each local community is unique, and that FE providers couldn’t help or empower communities without certain freedoms.

Andy Wilson, Principal of Westminster Kingsway College added that the sector had experienced tighter regulation whilst Labour was in power. This resulted in “huge rulebooks” and a tendency to prioritise performance targets; a landscape which many FE providers would probably wish to avoid in the future.

Toni Pearce, Vice President for FE at the National Union of Students was keen to bring the focus of the talks back to the impact and needs of students. She said: “We’ve talked about what’s best for colleges, but what about what’s best for students?”

If this had happened to schools or universities there would be flaming pitchforks

Toni said that she was concerned that the FE sector was being directed and driven by the private sector, and not the needs of local people.

Joy Mercer, AoC’s Director of Education Policy said that the current level of funding provides an insufficient number of hours needed to learn the English language. She said that “way more than 72 hours” were required, and asked how attendees would feel about trying to learn Japanese in a similar time frame.

The latter part of the event topic touched upon the role of large corporations, asking why they weren’t being forced to provide some sort of cash contribution to the delivery.

Sue Rimmer added that big businesses were ‘taking money for what they should be doing anyway.’

Stephen Hewitt suggested that help should be prioritised for small and medium sized corporations. He said: “If this had happened to schools or universities there would be flaming pitchforks. It’s always FE that gets messed around.”

Gordon Marsden, MP for Blackpool South and Shadow Minister for Further Education and Skills was present for the opening remarks of the debate.

He said that there was “a very broad philosophical debate to be won here”, and that he would continue to press the government on the issue. At the end of the session John McDonnell, Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington asked for suggestions on how these issues could be discussed further, putting forward the idea of an early day motion as an example.

David Hughes, the new Chief Executive of NIACE responded by asking that John Hayes, Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning conduct a lessons learnt investigation into how the original policy change was introduced and why it took so long to undo.

See more photos, by Laura Braun, here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/feweek