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Government committee warns of 'looming crisis' for FE colleges

Schmidt Hammer Lassen's City of Westminster College
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Public Accounts Committee (PAC) says abandoned LSC building programme still causing cash-strapped colleges ’serious problems’ 

Those working in the education sector were warned of major concerns about the the declining financial health of many Further Education (FE) colleges today in a report released by the government’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said: ’The government has been desperately slow off the mark to tackle a looming crisis in further education.

’This is deeply worrying… college principals told our Committee of the difficulties they face in recruiting quality staff; of courses being cancelled, and of stalled investment plans.’

She added: ’There must be greater clarity over who is responsible for taking action when colleges face financial difficulties, when that action should be taken, and a fuller understanding of its effects.

’There is a real danger of substantial further deterioriation in the sector and government must act now to ensure FE is put on a stable financial footing.’

The report said that the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) programme, which was predominantly shelved in 2009 leaving only a handful of capital project applications to proceed, was still burdening colleges. The colleges hardest hit, the report suggests, were those that had gone ahead with major building work.

The report said: ’When the programme was suspended, 79 capital project applications had been approved in principle by the former Learning and Skills Council, but only 22 subsequently received final approval.

’Reductions in funding since then have left some colleges with new premises that are under-used, or large debts that they are struggling to repay.’

With college principals reporting a real-terms funding cut of 27 per cent over the last five years, the commitee has called for a more proactive approach in helping FE colleges prepare for the ‘significant financial challenges they face in the likely event of further funding cuts’.

Comment

Oliver Milton, partner at Hawkins\Brown

’The FE sector has suffered from a long-term lack of investment with many colleges suffering from inadequate and outdated facilities that do not respond to the modern day challenges of either the 16-19 or adult education that they are charged with delivering.

’Many have estates with enormous potential, not only as educational establishments but also as centres of the community they serve. However, they sit between schools and universities, not only in the education they offer, but also in their inability to develop their estates. Whilst they have independent control, unlike schools, they lack the in-house expertise that most university estate departments have, that would allow them to unlock the potential of their sites.

’Colleges should have a long-term strategic development plan that ensures they are able to evolve and develop in a way that responds to the specific issues of individual colleges and seeks to maximises the potential of existing and new buildings, set within a coherent long term vision. Helping colleges get access to this type of expertise is critical in ensuring that the sector is able to evolve and innovate in the way it delivers teaching and learning.’

 

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